THE IRISHMAN (2019) – Overlong but enticing tale of Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man

There is so much good stuff in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman that one wants to root for it all the way the way through. But at about the three-quarter mark of this three-and-a-half-hour movie, its confidence dribbles away, and it comes sadly close to resembling a shaggy-dog story.

The movie highlights Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a meat-packing delivery driver who eventually rubs shoulders with Philadelphia’s crime family, headed by Russell Bufalino. (As amazing as DeNiro is age 75, he is matched in grace and subtlety by Joe Pesci, who delivers his best-ever movie performance as Bufalino.)

After Sheeran dutifully does Bufalino’s bidding on several assignments, he is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the mercurial head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Hoffa constantly refers to the Teamsters as “my union” and gets very nasty when any of his peers tries to convince him otherwise. Hoffa needs someone to make him seem less threatening in public, and he hires Sheeran to be that someone.

Anyone who saw the 1992 Jack Nicholson saga Hoffa — not to mention most of Martin Scorsese’s filmography — won’t be surprised at this movie’s familiar themes (e.g., hotheads with big guns and bigger senses of entitlement). But for a change, Scorsese explores those themes (and their ramifications) in a fairly low-key manner.

Sheeran is a good guy at heart, but his in-your-face method of problem resolution ends up alienating his family over the years. And whereas Hoffa’s bombastic style seemed unique in his time, it now seems to have served as a template for modern politics.

All of this is fascinating, up to a point. Unfortunately, the movie’s resolution of the Hoffa subplot is laboriously drawn-out, and the movie seems to go on forever from there. At length and in style, the movie is obviously aiming for Godfather-like greatness, but its story doesn’t have nearly as much depth or power.

Savor The Irishman‘s many good points, but beware its many changes in tone.


JOKER (2019) – What’s so funny?

Let’s the get the obvious stuff out of the way first. In terms of looking at society’s outcasts, Joker owes a great deal of debt to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (Scorsese was attached to Joker as a producer at one point). Happily, the movie gets its nods to those movies out of the way early as well, allowing us to then look at what it takes for an outsider to suffer the last straw.

All his life, Arthur Fleck (a crazily transcendent Joaquin Phoenix) has been taught by his deluded single mom (Frances Conroy) that he must bring smiles to the lives of everyone he meets. Too bad nobody returns the favor. When he does an everything-must-go promotion with a sign on a street corner, some thugs steal the sign and then beat Arthur senseless with it. And Arthur’s unsympathetic boss makes him pay for the sign out of his meager salary.

Arthur has only two things going for him: a hint of a career at stand-up comedy, and a vague possibility of romance with a fellow apartment dweller. Sadly, both of those outlets show more promise in Arthur’s mind than in harsh reality.

When Arthur scores a major revenge on three bullies who hassle him on the Gotham subway, it briefly tips the scales in his favor. He becomes the flavor-of-the-month superhero, even ending up as a guest on the talk show of his favorite celebrity, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). (Yeah, I know, another Scorsese reference, but who’s counting?)

The trouble is that, knowing Arthur’s utter lack of social skills, we can see disaster looming on the horizon of his every public appearance. The movie’s amazing dichotomy is that we can nevertheless feel for this poor guy every step of the way. 
For this we can credit Phoenix’s full-bodied characterization. He fearlessly throws himself into the role and makes us shudder for and pity him at the same time. 

Be warned that Joker earns its R rating with unrelenting violence. But it’s balanced out by Todd Philips’ solid writing and directing, and sincere performances by all, especially Phoenix.