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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

‘The Irishman’ or ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ (2019): The Scorsese Gangster Picture Returns

Directed by: Martin Scorsese || Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gaston Palvovich, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici

Screenplay by: Steven Zaillian || Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons

Music by: Robbie Robertson || Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto || Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 209 minutes

Martin Scorsese has aged more gracefully than most directors his age, name recognition, and stature. Most of his fellow “movie-brat” generation of auteurs, those filmmakers who were the first to study film in academia and/or came of age during the fabled American New Wave movement of the 1960s-1970s, have long since either sold out (George Lucas), lost their touch (Ridley Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma), or grown into curmudgeon-like Scrooges (Steven Spielberg) distasteful of change. While the controversy surrounding comments made by Scorsese regarding contemporary blockbusters is amusing, I find Scorsese’s ability to transition to digital filmmaking (e.g. The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]) and a popular streaming platform like Netflix without compromising his artistic integrity far more interesting.

Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, left) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, right) break bread over wine as they discuss the business of La Cosa Nostra.

In an age where filmmakers either (a) maintain relevancy by making comic-book movies (e.g. Taika Waititi’s Ragnorak [2017], Todd Phillips’ Joker [2019]) or (b) embrace the relative creative freedom of services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc., the choice for most auteurs uninterested in FX-driven blockbusters is clear. Scorsese has gone on record stating Netflix did what no major Hollywood studio would in footing his latest 3.5 hour gangster odyssey’s $159 million(!) budget, most of which has to do with the film’s complicated multi-camera visual FX used to de-age stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino without facial markers. Apologists for Hollywood’s risk-averse, focus-group tested market outlook may argue studio executives made the right call avoiding such a price tag unheard of for anything besides high-concept franchise movies, yet the bottom line is one of 2019’s best films is yet another Netflix exclusive.

To back up a bit, Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, The Irishman, is a cinematic adaptation of former homicide prosecutor Charles Brandt’s nonfiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa (2004). Both the book and Scorsese’s picture detail the life of teamster, mafia “fixer,” and hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who worked hand in glove with Russell Bufalino’s (Pesci) crime family and Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the crooked labor union leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). The film adaptation is an old-school, almost nostalgic retelling of these figures’ decades-long careers in organized crime and labor politics. As the narrative progresses through an elderly De Niro’s recount, however, that rosy outlook wears away once Sheeran transitions from petty theft to hardened contract-killing to his tragic, unforgettable relationship with Pacino’s Hoffa.

Much of the easygoing, hangout appeal of the movie is tied to its screenwriter Steve Zallian’s (Schindler’s List [1993], Gangs of New York [2002], American Gangster [2007], Moneyball [2011], The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011]) narrative structure, such that layers of flashbacks unfold in an order that is easy to follow and ties into the casual, almost rambling voiceover narration by De Niro’s elderly Sheeran, who opens and closes the story in a stuffy, pedestrian nursing home. The Irishman’s visual delivery is so relaxing the film can be viewed either in one sitting or over several days without losing emotional impact, such is the rhythmic flow of its story and the complicated interplay of its mobster and labor union figures. De Niro’s voiceovers are prevalent but not overexplanatory, the story’s ensemble cast is sprawling but not overwhelming, and the movie’s overall running-time is intimidating yet not wasteful; put in blunt terms, The Irishman is one of the best paced films I’ve seen in years, and if its final arrangement bares any resemblance to Zallian’s written outline, he deserves immense credit for the narrative’s marathon endurance.

Scorsese hasn’t lost a step as far as visual characterizations, stylish long-takes, and the staging of mob violence are concerned. The Irishman’s overall mood and energy are less frantic and aggressive than, say a Goodfellas (1990) or Raging Bull (1980), which makes sense given the dominant perspectives of characters in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. Still, how Scorsese analyzes De Niro’s decision over what firearms to use for a mob execution or how he maximizes tension from otherwise quaint squabbling between Pacino and memorable supporting actor, Stephen Graham, is captivating to watch.

Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano, right), cousin of mafia boss, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, off-screen), defends his union leader client, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, left), in court during a haphazard assassination attempt on the latter.

By the same logic, the film’s use of digital trickery to de-age its principle characters, a technique that might come across as hokey or contrived under most filmmakers, is executed by Scorsese as a sort of visualization of De Niro’s wistful, perhaps unreliable narration. I would be lying if I said The Irishman’s digital FX never experience uncanny valley or that De Niro ever really, truly looks 30-something years old in the movie’s first-act flashbacks, but in a strange way, the FX work by demonstrating the passage of time better than casting multiple actors for the same roles. It’s an artistic choice reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), except with characters who are interesting instead of irritating, and featuring a captivating story instead of no story at all.

If you’re a fan of crime dramas or a follower of Martin Scorsese’s filmography, you have no good reason not to see this. Even those with little interest in either have much to entertain themselves for over three and a half hours, with plenty of violence, gangster lingo, and dark humor for genre-cinephiles and much historical trivia, charismatic lead performances, and streamlined pacing for casual fans. This project features a septuagenarian auteur director as strong as he’s ever been, and if that’s not worth celebrating as a fan of cinema, I don’t know what is.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As long as it is fascinating, The Irishman, also titled onscreen as I Heard You Paint Houses, finds its screenwriter and director staying at the height of their powers. The film presents a fascinating odyssey of criminal enterprise interwoven with the political maneuvers of federal law enforcement and powerful labor movements, fleshed out with detailed characterizations brought to life by some of Hollywood’s greatest actors and ambitious special FX.

However… the multi-camera special FX used to portray De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino decades younger than they are is convincing from a thematic standpoint, not a literal one; the uncanny valley effect comes into play in several scenes.

—> The Irishman comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, which should come as no surprise given the film’s pedigree.

? When I was young, I thought house painters painted houses. What did I know?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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