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Goodfellas: The Later Years

OK .. maybe I will tackle ‘The Irishman.’ It’s early in the evaluation game and the film has been playing on Netflix for a week after limited theater release. I’ve seen it in both settings and multiple times. It’s been lauded and bestowed heaps of praise, but as Scorsese might point out this is an Avengers/X-men age we’re living in. I’ve never seen any of ‘those’ movies, so my opinions here are irrelevant. Plenty are acknowledging that it’s good, but perhaps fewer realize just how good it is. If ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Goodfellas’ are the standard, ‘Irishman’ completes the trifecta. It’s a notch above ‘Casino’ and anything starring DiCaprio, and while an argument might be made for ‘Mean Streets’ he was still cutting his teeth back then. ‘The Irishman’ is indeed something special.

It is, in every sense, a Scorsese film. The pacing, vignettes that play like short movies, acting and actors, establishing shots, music, and theme all have his personal stamp. It’s the first work he’s done that truly addresses age and growing old in both subtle and poignant manner. There’s a risk of losing audiences when you tackle this theme. Younger viewers miss the subtleties and things can tilt toward the slow-paced and depressing. But here’s a work of some technological achievement where the actors portraying characters at multiple life stages do so from the perspective of men in their seventies. The much talked-about ‘de-ageing’ process isn’t flawless and it’s impossible to view without some subconscious acknowledgement that these are all older men. (Pacino may be the exception here but more on his excellent performance later.) Even fully cognizant of this modern times sleight of hand, one’s brain adapts — largely due to superb acting and directing. This is particularly true with repeated viewing and, in this select sense it may be the quintessential Netflix production.

Joe Pesci (as Russell Bufalino) is brilliant. Having forged a career as the most explosive little guy in the history of cinema, here he is something else: underplayed, reserved, gently killing it. It’s an odd word to invoke given the mobster genre but there’s a strong and intangible love between Pesci and DeNiro. When they meet in a hushed-tone Italian restaurant, Pesci notes half-jokingly “there’s a lot of tough guys in this place .. you’re not afraid of tough guys, are you?” He already knows the answer but his manner and gentility underlines how this film isn’t ‘Goodfellas’. That ruthless killers can share this bond and dichotomous appeal is at the film’s center. Later, as older men, the two meet early morning, the only ones in a Howard Johnson’s self-serve breakfast nook. They’re on the cusp of their later years and the setting speaks to this — the quietness and intimacy of the moment, the morning sun shining in from another new day begun with many under the bridge. The gravity of the conversation is belied by the mini cereal packages of cornflakes and Total and the non-essential lines in a situation where every word counts. Here Pesci is the gentle father figure, explaining to his grown son how the world works. DeNiro has always been a quiet actor but he says more in silence in this film than any of his previous work.

If I had to (previously) rank my favored order of these three established icons (Pesci, DeNiro and Pacino) Al would perhaps have finished third. This may have changed with ‘Irishman.’ As Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino has done something remarkable. It’s an extraordinary performance and as good as any he’s done. The scenes opposite English actor Stephen Graham (portraying Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano) are worth watching repeatedly. Even paired with an actor thirty-plus years his junior, nothing about Pacino’s digitally-enhanced performance seems aged, fake or manipulated. He adds both weight and levity to the film and his lines (“if you GOT it .. a TRUCK brought it” .. “CHARGE with a gun .. with a knife you run” etc) are instantly quotable. He portrays Hoffa as a man so certain of himself that you have to wonder if he’s figured his inevitable fate and legacy are preferable to those of his mobbed-up counterparts. That Scorsese has waited this long to work with Pacino makes it more special. It’s hard to imagine him in a better or better-cast role.

Supporting performances fire on all cylinders. Ray Romano is fantastic as Bufalino’s attorney cousin and, along with Sebastian Maniscalco as Crazy Joe Gallo and Jim Norton as Don Rickles, testament to the idea that comedians are most suited to transition to dramatic acting roles. Harvey Keitel shines as does the young Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s son. (Did this kid make a conscious decision after “Friday Night Lights” to pack on the extra pounds? Either way, it lends to his dramatic appeal.) There isn’t a bad performance in the movie and at three and a half hours it always holds attention. Anna Paquin and Kathrine Narducci are excellent as is Welker White as Hoffa’s wife. Some shade may be cast on the film for being typically chauvinistic and male-dominated, but it is what it is: a Martin Scorsese mob epic with a who’s who of Italian-American actors. If hitting the ball out of the park doesn’t suffice or justify its existence or cost of production .. well, it isn’t like they’re going to stop making X-men films anytime soon.

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  1. Paully three fingers wrote:

    As always, writing with clarity.

    Except for the lack of the words “Taxi Driver” in that minor list of Scorcese Films. Sure – trying to truly say whether Raging Bull or Goodfellas are better or worse than Taxi Driver is a fool’s errand. But I’d say you have to have a quadfecta rather than a trifecta in that consideration.

    And for nine minutes of Pacino joy, see this:

    Who needs digital effects, when Titus Welliver can become Al Pacino, young or old?

    Sunday, December 15, 2019 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    Yeah I spaced out “Taxi Driver,” which speaks to my personal prejudice as much as anything else. It has less in common with the Italian-American theme of the other three and never registered with me in the same way .. though obviously it has much acclaim. I might be the only person in the country who would dare make an argument for “Bringing Out The Dead” .. so make of that what you will.

    Monday, December 16, 2019 at 7:59 am | Permalink

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