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.