I’ve been reviewing movies for just about three full years now. I’ve viewed and reviewed literally hundreds of films and in all this time I’ve never seen a movie that not only required multiple viewings for me to assess (as I like to make my reviews based on my first impressions) but has also created such division between critics and film viewers as to whether or not it should be considered an immediate classic. I’m talking about “The Irishman”, a movie that has many calling it one of the best of the decade and even of all time while others consider it to be a pretentious snore fest. Directed by the great Martin Scorsese and featuring Robert De Niro (the ninth feature length pairing of the director and actor), Joe Pesci (in his first starring role since retirement in 1999) and Al Pacino (in his first pairing with Scorsese) “The Irishman” focuses on real life mob hitman Frank Sheeran and his experiences with Jimmy Hoffa and mobster Russell Bufalino all based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses”. With Netflix proving year in and year out to be a true contender when it comes to delivering quality in film this is possibly the biggest movie, and longest at 3.5 hours, that they’ve ever brought to the table. After two viewings and a lot of thought I’m ready to share my opinions. It is the cinematic triumph the critics claim it to be or is it overhyped Oscar bait as some viewers have claimed? Let’s find out. This is my review of “The Irishman”.
Right out of the gate I have to warn anyone planning on giving this movie a chance, it is not for the impatient or faint of heart. “The Irishman” is a VERY long movie and at times you can definitely feel the length because it’s not the action packed, non-stop motion picture many have come to expect from cinema these days. This is pretty fitting considering Scorsese’s recent comments about a certain cinematic universe of superhero films he believes are more like theme parks than actual movies. Anyways Scorsese definitely backs up his perspective providing plenty of substance while the style is still present but takes a back seat. In the big picture it’s not exactly a stretch for the director. Gangster flicks and similar stories are his bread and butter seeing as “Goodfellas”, “The Departed” and “Casino” are are some of his best and most well-known films. So, the story and material aren’t really a challenge for Scorsese and I think that’s something to remember when viewing this. If you go in hoping for something genuinely unique from the filmmaker you’re not going to get it. You’re going to get exactly what you should expect from Scorsese which includes a certain realism, great direction (some of his best in fact) and characters that feel human, relatable and flawed. It’s all very predictable stuff from Scorsese but to be honest that’s part of the charm. It’s the director playing it safe and even when he’s staying in his comfort zone Scorsese still runs circles around some of today’s greats with his attention to detail and uncompromising commitment to the story even if it makes the film feel about an hour too long.
I think that’s where I struggled with “The Irishman” at first. I went in with my first viewing expecting absolute greatness from a director who is already pretty great. To make an odd comparison I’m a fan of the Patriots in the NFL and I’ve seen them win three titles in six years, every time doing it in a different way. So, each title gave us something new and fun to appreciate. With Scorsese, and filmmaking in general, it doesn’t always work like that. So, what I expected from “The Irishman” was one of the greatest directors of all time pushing his own limits and what I got was a film that complimented all of Scorsese’s strengths while incorporating only a few new elements, thus staying right in the sweet spot of Scorsese’s style and capabilities. One of the biggest additions to his style is the use of “state of the art” de-aging effects on the actors which, while imperfect, isn’t as distracting as it has been in previous movies. Even with that new addition to Scorsese’s bag of filmmaking tricks, “The Irishman” wasn’t that big milestone motion picture I expected because it felt so familiar to the director’s past work, but when you have a filmography as well defined and iconic as Scorsese’s just being able to compare a film to his past accomplishments is enough to call it great. Once I gave the movie a second chance, I went in watching it more for what it is than what I wanted it to be and it’s only then that I understood what was so fascinating about it.
“The Irishman” at its core is sort of a culmination of all the great things its cast and director have learned over the years about telling a story. Three acting giants, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, lead the way and all of them not only clearly know what they’re doing and present their based-on-real-life characters perfectly but the way they control themselves and know when to take things to a new level or to bring things back a notch is a testament to how great these actors are. Like Scorsese, these roles aren’t exactly a challenge or stretch for these performers, but that’s why they’re so good in this movie. Like the director, we see actors who are jumping into roles they’re used to playing and have perfected over the years so what we’re viewing is the culmination of all that experience into three standout performances from 2019. Combine that with a great script and patient directing and editing and everything comes together to give us a spectacularly human cinematic experience willing to dive into the harsh realities of its chosen story.
The problem is all of this fails to make “The Irishman” engaging which is why many will probably find it over hyped and difficult to watch and I can’t say I blame them. But it’s important to understand something…this is NOT a movie to entertain. It wasn’t built that way and maybe the fact that people are expecting that from “The Irishman” lends some credibility to Scorsese’s recent comments about how action and effects-heavy films are negatively impacting how people view films as art. This movie’s experience is not meant to be driven by a constant energy. The investment comes from its realism and honesty, its longing to capture the very human elements of its narrative rather than resort to cheep tricks to keep the viewer involved. Is it long and drawn out? Absolutely. I’ll safely admit this movie is probably an hour too long. But I also can’t honestly pinpoint any part of the film that I would want to eliminate without affecting the quality of the story. It’s things like that that have my hands tied when trying to define this movie as “bloated”. How much you enjoy this movie may come down to how well you respect the art of filmmaking versus the entertainment aspect of movies and having watched this film expecting both I can safely say if you go in wanting to see art and not to have fun you’ll appreciate this movie so much more. It might seem strange to say you shouldn’t’ seek to have fun watching a film but think of it this way: When you go to a museum you’re there to revel in the subtlety of the art but when you watch a documentary you’re there to be invested in the experience and how things are done. One allows you to find your personal connection to the piece while the other tells you what you’re supposed to think. “The Irishman” is the former and thus requires a lot of, or maybe too much, patience to fully understand and respect.
So, my final analysis is that I don’t believe “The Irishman” is as great as everyone says it is, but it is still a amazing movie. It’s a challenging film, both in content and in length, that demands respect and that can be a bit too much for those unwilling to look beyond the surface. The writing, directing, acting, and even the de-aging effects are all as good as they can be for the times which should be expected given the talent involved. Sadly, though what keeps “The Irishman” from being considered one of the best of all time for me is that it’s not even Scorsese’s best movie. It’s merely a culmination of everything that makes him and the three staring actors great. It doesn’t push too many boundaries, it fits right into the director’s wheelhouse and the story doesn’t feel as challenging or engaging as the director’s previous work so to call it his best film feels too over the top. But I can say with confidence it is a work of art and like many great works it’s not the immediate interpretation and understanding that will define its legacy but how we look back on it in years to come and I get the feeling we’ll be talking about “The Irishman”, for better or worse, for a very long time.