Martin Scorsese insists that you should not watch The Irishman on your phone – if you absolutely cannot find a way to see it in a theater, then, in his opinion, you’re doing something wrong (though he does make an exception if you have a very large iPad). Why? Well, I assume it has something to do with the fact that Martin Scorsese is probably keen on being nominated for an Oscar or two at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, and he doesn’t want any voters to be deterred by the idea that his grand masterpiece of mobster cinema is, in any way, shape, or form, a TV movie. After all, this is a historical epic – not something you can watch while you’re just lounging around on the couch. Netflix has had to deal with this image-problem many times before – just this year, in fact, the dramatic Roma was snubbed in a few crucial categories at the Oscars partly because of the fact that, well, it’s not a “real” movie. And for that reason, Scorsese will do everything in his power to make sure Oscar voters and critics get the message: The Irishman is credible, and most importantly, cinematic. It’s the same reason why he’s going around saying that the film would never work as a TV series (the mere suggestion probably made his blood boil), and that a traditional studio would never have greenlit a movie in which the protagonist ends up in a wheelchair at the end (I strongly encourage Scorsese to go watch Rogue One, a Disney movie in which every member of the main cast dies by the end of the film).
But he doesn’t have to – because The Irishman speaks for itself. It is a cinematic masterpiece (and it would be whether or not it played in theaters, because, no matter how vehemently Scorsese may disagree, cinema is defined simply as “the art or technique of making motion pictures”). It is, perhaps, less timely than other landmark films of 2019, but that’s because its message is timeless. Some films don’t need to be ripped-from-the-headlines commentaries on society in order to be relevant. And so, without intending to, Scorsese has crafted the darker, more atmospheric cousin to the modern superhero movie – an original movie that simply exists to entertain. The Irishman has plenty of messages (don’t distance yourself from the people you love, karma always catches up with you, killing people for a living is probably a bad idea), but none of them are groundbreaking; none of them are even that deep, or thought-provoking. I don’t think The Irishman is going to linger in peoples’ minds because of its themes, or its weighty analysis of the concepts of regret and remorse – it’s going to be memorable because it’s a fun movie to watch. A really fun movie.
And that’s actually the film’s most impressive achievement, because at three and a half hours long, The Irishman really shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. But in all that epic runtime, I was only bored twice – during the first and last thirty minutes of the movie. The film starts out very slow, and there’s a few jumps in between different parts of the timeline that are difficult to follow at first (you’re supposed to be able to tell when is when with the help of the various stages of de-aging technology on the lead actors’ faces, but, well…we’ll get to that). But after what feels like an eternity of watching Robert De Niro driving a meat delivery-van, the movie abruptly takes off like a bullet – and then it gets good, when Al Pacino arrives onscreen like the divine, ice-cream devouring presence he is (no, literally, he eats a lot of ice-cream in this movie: so much so that he did an interview about it).
Al Pacino is what makes this movie great, and I have no qualms about saying it. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are obviously incredible actors, legends of the screen, if you will – but Pacino instills the role of notorious labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa with a fiery charisma. Just as Robert Pattinson recently infused an otherwise drab medieval drama, The King, with his signature brand of insanity, much to that film’s benefit, Pacino here makes Hoffa larger-than-life, ridiculously charming, and more than slightly terrifying. Hoffa’s quirks, from the ice-cream addiction to his long list of pet peeves (he actually tries to kill someone for wearing shorts to a business meeting), are all exaggerated just enough to make them humorous. Yes, The Irishman is actually an incredibly funny movie – something the film’s marketing campaign ignored, perhaps deliberately. But ignoring it is a disservice to Pacino, who uses those laugh-out-loud moments to make Jimmy Hoffa a truly sympathetic character – one whom we don’t want to see get hurt. It’s not historically accurate, but neither is most of this movie.
The lead character, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), whose real-life testimonials about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa are the primary basis for the movie’s plot, has had his reliability questioned many times over the years, and his account of the events of July 30th, 1975 is regarded by many as untrustworthy, to say the least. However, in an effort to preserve the film’s secrets for those who don’t know a thing about the Hoffa case (such as me, before I researched the film’s dubious claims), we’re not going to talk about all the minute details of the disappearance and ensuing investigation – or Sheeran’s even more controversial claim about the JFK assassination. The latter is only briefly touched upon in the film, but is bound to become a major talking point for those who have seen it. As for De Niro’s performance – it’s good. Very good, even. But despite (or perhaps because of) all the stony solemnity and brow-furrowing, he simply didn’t affect me on an emotional level the same way Pacino did. Same with Joe Pesci, who has a sizable role as mob boss Russell Bufalino (though I do admire Pesci’s performance for the way he was able to convey, without a single line of dialogue, when his character wanted somebody killed: just a mere side-eye, and you could immediately tell someone was going to get shot dead).
All three men – Pacino to a lesser extent than De Niro and Pesci – do have to act around the iffy de-aging technology that attempts to smooth out their faces into weirdly plastic masks for the first half of the movie, and that’s a huge problem that the film’s lighting crew clearly struggled with: thankfully, so much of The Irishman takes place in shadowy Italian restaurants that it’s often too dark to see the de-aged faces – but even in a scene lit by bright daylight, the World War II flashback in which Sheeran is supposed to be in his early twenties, somehow the shadows of De Niro’s helmet manage to hide almost his entire face from the camera.
I could probably ramble on and on about the film’s beautiful cinematography and production design, and the way that each decade of American history was lovingly brought to life (well, except for the early 21st Century, which looks like a lifeless gray wasteland compared to the vivid vitality of the 50’s and 60’s). But I probably can’t explain it better than cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. I would be shocked if The Irishman doesn’t win in some technical categories at next year’s Oscars – it deserves a lot of wins, except for special effects.
And then, of course, there’s the music. The main theme of the movie actually wore on me after a while, and I was tempted to ignore the score entirely if it weren’t for the absolutely brilliant instrumental piece, entitled Remembrance, that composer Robbie Robertson stuck in the movie’s end-credits (but not even the first half of the credits, where some people might be sticking around to listen: it’s shoved right in the middle, somewhere around the point where they’re thanking the medics and food catering service). I might be so eager to forgive the movie’s faults, just because the payoff, that one end-credits musical composition, is so fantastic.
The Irishman does have faults – I mentioned earlier that it’s not great until Al Pacino shows up. It’s also not great once he leaves the film, with half an hour still to go of everybody basically just sitting around and reminiscing about how great it was when Al Pacino was around. Then we get a little bit of trademark Scorsese bitterness about modernity (there’s a scene late in the run-time where Sheeran is shocked to discover that young people these days don’t even know who Hoffa was). But the vast majority of the movie in between Pacino’s arrival and disappearance is an absolutely enjoyable whirlwind of emotions that I think you won’t want to miss out on.
And, just so you know, it’s perfectly okay to watch The Irishman on your phone. I did, and far from missing out on the film’s cinematic subtleties, I actually loved it. Yes, I might disagree with Martin Scorsese on…virtually everything about the definition of cinema, but that has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a masterful director with a keen eye for carving out a powerful and entertaining story from one of the most convoluted and controversial stories in the history of the American mob.
Movie Rating: 9.5/10