Is a short film with more pizzazz better than a big one that is too long and sleepy? This is the question asked today by Martin Scorsese’s new film on Netflix. The Irishman brings together – perhaps for the last time – the legends of American cinema but struggles to please even their biggest fans.
Everyone responded. An unprecedented family reunion. On paper, The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s new film currently on Netflix, presents itself as the main “cross-over” of all his great films and the actors who took part in them. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, Netflix’s Movie of the Year 2019 (in terms of promotion) is just a slow and sad misery of some of the biggest glories in film history. In The Irishman, the auras of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and others Harvey Keitel – not to mention Martin Scorsese – are extinguished and give up their beautiful souls of death, like cinema grandfathers who have died and given up on a new era of streaming. However, this sadness is only symbolic – it is “meta”, as they say – and it doesn’t come from the narrative power of the script or the staging of the film itself.
When reality beats fiction
The latter looks like another film by its director but the length of the footage (even for Martin Scorsese) doesn’t help. Indeed, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street or The Departed, for example, this film doesn’t benefit from any common thread until its final third. In short, it just looks like a nostalgic perversion of its narrator, Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a raving old mafioso. He was like a grandfather who couldn’t help but tell the same very long and sad story to his grandchildren over and over again. They can’t stop him for fear of hurting him or disrespecting him and therefore have to suffer in silence until the end of the story they already know. In itself, the idea is not bad. Once again a symbolic masterpiece: the voiceover is metaphorically aimed at Netflix viewers, these kids are raised and educated to think of him (De Niro), Al Pacino and the others as eternal legends of cinema. Unless The Irishman reveals to us that in reality, they’re pretty lethal and tired.
This attempt at summary and final family reunions – where we even hear a song from the main theme The Godfather (Francis Ford-Coppola, 1972) humming against the background of a dialogue scene in a restaurant – hurts especially with its rhythm. Pictures of Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) and Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984), the completeness of his biographical aspects is difficult to digest at the same time for the viewer. Flashbacks in flashbacks don’t help either. Moreover, artificially used for consistency to make the characters look younger (retouching, makeup, etc.) did not succeed in creating the illusion.
Heartwarming ending but too late
Despite this superficial problem, this film does not manage to keep the audience in suspense in the execution of the screenplay. But the goal is simple and effective. Frank Sheeran, in his life as a gangster, is lucky to have two best friends, Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). A former soldier turned mafia killer, he can’t help but follow orders, even when he has to choose to kill one after another. The deep friendship Sheeran feels for the two characters and the immense regret that comes with his final decision – above all, the effect on his relationship with one of his daughters, Peggy (Anna Paquin) – is captured wonderfully in the film. But the road to get there is too long and, frankly, tedious to save an entire film. Caught up in his way of doing things, and in his classic cinematic format, Martin Scorsese missed the opportunity his relationship with Netflix could present. By making The Irishman a mini-series, with necessary and well-written breaks, he may be able to lighten the burden of that enormous length without compromising the emotional power of its conclusion. Such a more digestible format could even sublimate the work. Instead, Netflix viewers end up with films that are too long and expensive for theaters, and ultimately too loose and boring for the rest of the world.