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The Irishman (2019)

In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.

We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).

There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.

Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.

Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.

The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.

There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.

There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Big Sick (2017)

Kumail Nanjiani is a very funny guy but he also might just break your heart and then mend it. He and his real-life wife Emily Gordon met in Chicago and weeks into their courtship she was placed into a medically induced coma to combat a mysterious unknown infection. She could have died (spoiler alert: she didn’t), and months after she and Kumail married. It’s a very unconventional relationship story (boy gets girl, girl gets coma, boy and girl get together) and the basis of The Big Sick. This romantic comedy, written by Nanjiani and Gordon, was a smash hit at the Sundance Film Festival and is now expanding across the nation. This is a born crowd-pleaser, one of the funniest films in years, and a heart-warming reminder of the pleasures of rom-coms done well.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a Chicago stand-up comedian trying to catch his big break. He falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student in psychology. They try and keep things casual but cannot help growing closer to one another. Kumail’s traditional Pakistani family is adamant he marry a Pakistani girl, enough that there’s always one unexpectedly “in the neighborhood” during family dinners with their son. They would never approve Kumail marrying an American woman, and this stops him from introducing Emily to his parents. Kumail and Emily fight, break up, and it’s shortly thereafter that Emily is put into a medically induced coma. Enter Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are thankful but wary of Kumail at first, feeling his attention is no longer required on the matter. As the days turn into weeks, Kumail finds himself growing closer to Emily and her parents in the process.

The Big Sick succeeds wildly because it gets the most fundamental principal of storytelling right: we care about the characters. Over the course of the film, you grow attached to Kumail and Emily and their very unorthodox situation. We want them to find happiness and, more importantly in a rom-com genre, we want them to find it with each other. The characters in the movie are beautifully rendered and relatable. Their faults and relationship troubles aren’t the stuff of contrived drama but recognizable differences and cross-cultural pressures of acceptance and disappointment. He may be a stand-up comedian, and she may have fallen into a coma for an unknown medical reason, but you will relate to both of these people. They don’t feel like archetypes. Even as Kumail is making amends for his mistakes the movie doesn’t paint him as a saint worth automatic forgiveness. Considering this was written by the real-life Emily, it should be no spoiler to state that she does eventually come out of that coma. Her life is automatically better and while Kumail has only grown more steadfast in his feelings for her, Emily was asleep. For her, it’s like moments after they broke up due to an incompatible future. She’s thankful for what Kumail has done but she doesn’t want to be with him. That’s the second act break, folks. A lesser movie would have Emily’s awakening serve as its climax and everything would be hunky-dory while an earnest pop-rock song would play over. With The Big Sick, the last act is dealing with the consequences of her coma, and Emily is allowed her agency once more to make decisions all her own. It’s easy to project a progression of romance onto a static being, but she needs to travel at her own speed and on her own terms. I won’t lie; the final act produced some meaty tears from me.

Another hallmark of Judd Apatow productions that I don’t think gets enough acclaim is the sheer generosity of the screenwriting. These movies spread out the love to a wide ensemble of characters that deserve consideration. There are stock comedy types that pop in for the occasional easy laugh, like David Alan Grier’s coked-out club owner or Kurt Braunohler as the painfully inept comedian, but as a whole The Big Sick offers a welcomed kindness to its larger cast. Even Kumail’s arranged dates are given the opportunity to come across like people, particularly Khadija (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell) who is tired of not being able to enjoy what seems so easy for others. The fussy Pakistani family is played to be stern and uncompromising but they too have their moments. They are worried about losing their sense of culture through full assimilation, and they have an alternate view of family, one that involves self-sacrifice for the whole. The best additions to the movie are Emily’s parents. They don’t initially know what to make of Kumail but they eventually bond to him in different ways. Beth is fighting to control something out of her control and Terry is trying to keep everything calm. There is still lingering discomfort buried in their marriage from past indiscretions, and during times of crises it can reappear, forcing Kumail into an unexpected position. The movie’s sense of people is so warm-hearted and open, you just want to spend more time with them all, and it’s a simple yet beautiful pleasure to watch them connect.

Oh my lord is this movie funny too, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has seen Nanjiani’s standup routines before (extra points for not overly relying upon standup in the film for easy jokes). I was laughing from start to finish and there’s a consistent placement of jokes doled out in regular intervals. And when I was laughing it was the room-clearing guffaws. I can’t remember a movie in recent years that had me laughing as hard. Nanjiani’s deadpan is a thing of beauty and his comic timing is razor-sharp, and yet his sense of humor doesn’t detract from the weightier moments. Because the movie has such a heavy life-and-death backdrop, it’s important to have release valves for the audience, and that’s what the diligent comedy allows. It’s a bittersweet sense of comedy that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character and the weight of the drama. In fact the least funny parts in the film are likely the standup comedy friends, though no fault to Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham, both generally very funny people.

Nanjiani (TV’s Silicon Valley) is a pleasant surprise as a dramatic actor. There are some very dramatic moments when his character is unburdening himself of regrets, fears, and frustrations, and Nanjiani is terrific, pooling emotions you didn’t think were so readily available in his acting toolkit. He makes Kumail a likeable and charming man. There’s also an undercurrent of conflict avoidance, not wanting to upset his conservative family, which leads to holding onto secrets. It’s a flaw that provides an instant direction for character growth, going from avoidant to assertive. Kazan (Ruby Sparks) has the tougher job considering she’s sidelined for half of the movie. Her portrayal of Emily is winsome without falling into a dangerously quirky territory (no Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Thankfully, she’s allowed her agency after waking from the coma, and her scenes with Kumail afterward walk that delicate line of emotions that leave us hanging. Hunter (Batman vs. Superman) and Romano (TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond) are both wonderful. They serve as a form of Emily proxies and when Kumail grows closer to them, and they grow closer to him, it feels like this small support group is becoming an appealing team.

The Big Sick is a big crowd-pleaser, lifted to great heights by terrific acting, writing, and direction from Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris). The director actually lampooned rom-com clichés in the hilarious satire, They Came Together, so having someone as instinctively skilled like Showalter guide the production helps steer away from the more expected genre moments. There are a handful of moments that feel pulled in from the Hollywood version of this story (Kumail’s big break timed with a very personal crossroads) but it mostly works on its own terms. These people are layered, allowed to be flawed and interesting human beings. It’s an unsentimental movie that finds ways to big emotions that feel completely earned. If you’re ailing for an enjoyable, funny, and heart-warming movie that respects your intelligence, try The Big Sick.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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