Killer cast

Scors­ese’s ‘The Ir­ish­man’ dis­man­tles the myths he helped cre­ate

Pawtucket Times - - FRONT PAGE - Ann Hor­na­day

Martin Scors­ese’s ‘The Ir­ish­man’ is ex­actly what you ex­pect from a nearly four-star rat­ing gang­land epic.

‘The Ir­ish­man,” Martin Scors­ese’s long-ges­tat­ing gang­land epic, starts off with a bit­ter­sweet in­side joke: A long track­ing shot - one of the di­rec­tor’s bravura sig­na­tures - that threads the au­di­ence, not through the labyrinthi­ne hall­ways and kitchens of the Copaca­bana, but an old folks’ home, where the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, Frank Sheeran, can be found ru­mi­nat­ing on a life not well-lived as much as jam-packed with in­ci­dent, in­cite­ment, fierce loy­al­ties and breath­tak­ing be­tray­als.

As por­trayed by Robert De Niro, Sheeran is some­thing of a ci­pher in “The Ir­ish­man,” which spans sev­eral decades as he re­lates how he came to be a hit man for the Philadel­phia mob, a con­fi­dante of Team­sters leader Jimmy Hoffa and, ul­ti­mately, the guy who put Hoffa down for good in 1975 (to this day, his dis­ap­pear­ance is con­sid­ered an un­solved mys­tery). This sprawl­ing, col­or­ful, ele­giac and of­ten wryly amus­ing saga - adapted from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” - ad­vances an in­trigu­ingly con­vinc­ing chron­i­cle of how crim­i­nal and po­lit­i­cal forces con­verged to have Hoffa whacked by one of his clos­est as­so­ciates. As one of Scors­ese’s most am­bi­tious films in re­cent me­mory, it also man­ages to re­visit the tribal rites and rit­u­als that have fas­ci­nated him through­out a wildly pro­duc­tive 60year ca­reer, fram­ing them within a wider so­cial his­tory, as an­i­mated by cor­rup­tion and con­spir­acy as by the lofti­est Amer­i­can ideals.

In other words, for Scors­ese fans ea­ger to sa­vor the di­rec­tor’s most per­sonal themes and sig­na­ture cin­e­matic ges­tures, “The Ir­ish­man” is a feast for the ages, a groan­ing board of exquisitel­y pho­tographed scenes, iconic performanc­es and ten­der nods to­ward old age that leave view­ers in a mood more wist­ful than keyed-up. (For those less en­am­ored of the film­maker’s vul­gar­ity-spew­ing an­ti­heroes and crime-world tropes, “The Ir­ish­man” will of­ten feel need­lessly repet­i­tive, sludgy and self-in­dul­gent.) Scors­ese doesn’t shy away from the vis­ceral ruth­less­ness and male codes of honor and dis­grace that have al­ways at­tracted him. In “The Ir­ish­man” they play out slowly, sadly, the bet­ter to con­sider the empti­ness at their core.

Span­ning 1949 to 2000, “The Ir­ish­man” re­counts how Sheeran - a World War II vet­eran who drives a meat truck for a liv­ing - meets Rus­sell Bu­falino (Joe Pesci), a soft-spo­ken mafia don who is part of a syn­di­cate that con­trols Philadel­phia, Pitts­burgh and Detroit. Af­ter prov­ing his bona fides, Sheeran even­tu­ally meets Hoffa (Al Pa­cino), with whom he forms an in­deli­ble bond, be­com­ing the union boss’s stead­fast fixer, en­forcer and fam­ily friend.

Just how Sheeran went from Hoffa’s trusted con­fi­dant to mur­derer forms the emo­tional arc of “The Ir­ish­man,” which was writ­ten for the screen by Steven Zail­lian. And even if the an­swer still isn’t en­tirely clear by the end of the film’s prodi­gious 3 1/2hour run­ning time, Scors­ese gives au­di­ences plenty of at­mo­spheric set pieces and larger-than-life char­ac­ters to keep them from feel­ing de­prived. De Niro and Pesci, who haven’t worked to­gether un­der Scors­ese since 1995’s “Casino,” get back into har­ness

with one an­other with the ease of the pros that they are: Pesci’s rel­a­tively mild-man­nered Bu­falino is a par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing and wel­come de­par­ture from the hair-trig­ger histri­on­ics of the char­ac­ters he’s best known for.

But it’s when Pa­cino ar­rives on the scene as Hoffa that “The Ir­ish­man” truly lev­i­tates, the ac­tor mak­ing his Scors­ese pic­ture de­but with a per­for­mance that is at once bom­bas­tic and sub­tle, ob­nox­ious and cu­ri­ously sym­pa­thetic. Through­out the film, Sheeran’s daugh­ter Peggy looks askance at Bu­falino, while trust­ing Hoffa im­plic­itly (maybe be­cause he loves ice cream as much as she does). Played by Anna Paquin as a young woman, Peggy be­comes per­haps the most mad­den­ingly para­dox­i­cal fig­ure in “The Ir­ish­man,” largely si­lenced by the film­mak­ers (she lit­er­ally speaks only one or two lines), her in­creas­ingly ap­palled glares at Sheeran serv­ing as stand-ins for con­science in his oth­er­wise amoral, trans­ac­tional world.

One of the rea­sons “The Ir­ish­man” has taken so long to get to the screen was the tricky busi­ness of de-ag­ing the lead ac­tors for its ear­li­est scenes; here, the process is barely no­tice­able, thanks not only to the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of com­puter tech­nol­ogy but Ro­drigo Pri­eto’s ex­quis­ite cin­e­matog­ra­phy, which sug­gests sev­eral dif­fer­ent eras through the use of chang­ing pal­ettes (the film tog­gles between the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and early aughts). Al­though “The Ir­ish­man” is full of fa­mil­iar Scors­ese mo­tifs - one-on-one en­coun­ters drip­ping with sub­tex­tual dread, night­club out­ings with “the wives” and a crooner on­stage, those gor­geous dolly shots - here they’re re­ca­pit­u­lated with a more mourn­ful, con­tem­pla­tive tone.

In­deed, “The Ir­ish­man” is so full of Scors­ese’s most beloved rep play­ers and re­peated tropes that it’s dif­fi­cult not to com­pare it to such pre­de­ces­sors as “Mean Streets,” “Rag­ing Bull” and es­pe­cially “Good­fel­las.” (The equiv­a­lent scene to the Lufthansa heist here is a won­der­fully pi­quant ac­count of the Bay of Pigs op­er­a­tion.) This film is pop­u­lated by the same thugs, bul­lies, mooks and mugs - not to men­tion a Kennedy or two - but by now it’s clear that the film­maker might be will­ing to en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that they’re not as in­her­ently in­ter­est­ing as Hol­ly­wood’s in­fat­u­a­tion with al­lur­ing out­laws might sug­gest.

Of course Scors­ese him­self has been a chief prop­a­ga­tor of those myths, which he dis­man­tles with as much crafts­man­ship and feel­ing in “The Ir­ish­man” as he did while build­ing them up so se­duc­tively in his ear­lier films. With its ob­ses­sion with process and how-it-all-went­down chronol­ogy, “The Ir­ish­man” is tire­some, at times even dull in its point­less ar­gu­ments and pro­fane ego trips. But that leaves view­ers con­fronting how movies - es­pe­cially Scors­ese’s - have shaped our most dis­qui­et­ing de­sires.

“The Ir­ish­man” isn’t a soar­ing achieve­ment: It’s a de­lib­er­ate, thought­ful and some­what muted one. No mat­ter where that trav­el­ing cam­era goes, its sub­verts our ex­pec­ta­tions at ev­ery turn. Which can some­times feel like a drag, but also ex­actly right.

Three and one-half stars. Rated R. Con­tains per­va­sive coarse lan­guage and strong vi­o­lence. 209 min­utes


Robert De Niro, left, and Joe Pesci star in “The Ir­ish­man.”


Al Pa­cino, right, in “The Ir­ish­man.”

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