* * * * 1/2
There’s simply no denying the awesome craftsmanship of Martin Scorsese’s überfilm The Irishman, which has finally arrived, after an enormous shoot and an unprecedented post-production process, on big and small screens (it’s a Netflix production). As monumental, and monumentally skilled, cinema, it’s breath-taking: the production design, the cinematography, the attention to detail at every level, the bold editing, the elegance of the compositions, all point to a team of masters working together on a masterpiece in the old-fashioned sense.
So how does it work on a storytelling level? For me, the biggest surprise, given that I went in with plenty of fair assumptions, was the amount of times the film made me laugh out loud. Once Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) enters the story, presumably kicking off the second act (of a three and a half hour picture), The Irishman is not afraid to boldly make a joke. Pacino’s performance is funny in its own right, and as it goes on, it seems to give the movie permission to follow its lead; by the time we’re well ensconced in the second hour, Scorsese and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker are making edit gags – “cuts” that humorously draw attention to themselves – and, presumably, yucking it up in the edit suite. Praise be to them; I loved the humour in the movie, and Pacino’s performance.
Robert De Niro, as Hoffa’s factotum Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title who also serves the Philly mob, and ultimately finds himself a troubled servant of two masters, has the film’s straightest role, allowing the enormous and enormously professional cast to dazzle in his reflection. He’s in every scene and a stable influence, which is not to say he’s not very, very good. But Frank’s major personality trait is his loyalty, which simply isn’t a very passionate attribute. His is a quiet confidence, most evident when he kills.
The film spent so long in post because it utilised digital de-ageing techniques to allow De Niro, Joe Pesci, Pacino and others the chance to play the younger versions of themselves. Facially, this looks a little ‘uncanny’, especially in the first act, when they’re meant to be at least thirty years younger than they really are (which is in their mid-70s). But it’s their bodies that don’t look right. The digital forty year-old Frank, featuring a smooth face with eerie computer eyes, walks as a 76 year old De Niro does, throws a gun into the river as an older man does, kicks a man with weak old man legs and joints. It’s strange looking – not in a good way – and distracting.
The third act, featuring the men in their actual dotage, is melancholic, mournful and quite magical. This is where Scorsese and his mob effectively bring their mafia trilogy – combining GoodFellas, Casino and this title – to its close, and in doing so, come to the mother of all crime movie conclusions: at the end of the day, crime really doesn’t pay. All those days these goombahs spent one-upping each other, they weren’t playing with their children, and that is their punishment. That, and, as the movie keeps telling us, very often five or six bullets to the head.