The Irishman — AKA I Heard You Paint Houses — is one of the best movies of the year and a certain nominee for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, Screenplay, and quite possibly visual effects. It is one of those rare but enjoyable pairings of Martin Scorsese and his acting muse, Robert De Niro, but also has the dual (and equally rare) distinction of pairing De Niro with the OTHER great actor of his generation, Al Pacino, who has almost never been better than he is here as Jimmy Hoffa. Add to this firepower the luring of the great character actor Joe Pesci out of retirement for yet ANOTHER mob movie with De Niro and Scorsese, and you have a can’t-miss entertainment.
This movie takes all these fantastic ingredients and piles them onto a Forrest Gump-esque tale of a not-too-bright mob enforcer who sort of bumbles through a few of the more major events of the past 50-60 years, acting on the orders of “old-school” Mafia bosses to bring down such a figure as Hoffa, and helping (perhaps unwittingly) to influence such events as the Bay of Pigs invasion and (possibly) the assassination of JFK. This is an epic, ambitious, at times confusing, not always clear, but always entertaining entry in the Mob Movie pantheon of the great Scorsese, who does some of his finest work here.
The Irishman has been a long-in-development film that depends on the use of de-aging technology to tell is decades-spanning story. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino (as well as, quite possibly, co-stars Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano) are de-aged to their 20s and 30s and then aged forward again with the use of traditional hair and makeup techniques and sheer acting prowess. I will say that the gimmick of transforming De Niro (in his late 70s) to his early 20s and then again to his mid-40s is a bit too gimmicky for its own good … there are several scenes in which we are painfully aware that there is something not quite right about the way De Niro looks and moves, as if his face were somehow transposed onto a different actor’s body. But that’s where we’re at with the technology, and the acting is so damned good — and Scorsese’s use of the device so assured — that I’m willing to go along with it. Without this technology, we probably would not have The Irishman at all — at least, not with these actors, doing what they absolutely do best.
It is a huge pleasure to watch Robert De Niro play a mob hitman. He did it so gracefully (and powerfully, and menacingly) in GoodFellas, and he has been so great in other Scorsese films (The King of Comedy, Casino, Taxi Driver) that they all sort of roll up into one performance — it is hard not to think of De Niro without thinking of Scorsese, and vice versa. De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is another hard, closed-off man, not unlike the characters he played in other Scorsese films. Sheeran, at the beginning of this long (long, loooooooooooong) film is in a nursing home, recounting his days as a Mafia enforcer at the beck and call of a “gentleman” named Russell Bufalino, played De Niro’s great longtime foil Pesci. After years of mob hits and other acts of brutality, Sheeran is assigned to work alongside Hoffa (Pacino) as reliable muscle, applying his ruthless physicality to acts that benefit the charismatic UAW leader. These three characters — Sheeran, Bufalino, Hoffa — form the heart of the film and are so well-played by De Niro, Pesci and Pacino that we forget we are watching actors in a movie. We are living alongside these guys through the storms of history.
And yet we are constantly aware that we are watching these three great actors — probably the greatest who ever lived — working together in the same film, and it is exhilarating. Aside from getting caught up in this absorbing tale of business, greed and criminality, we are watching these three guys bounce off each other in the manner they were born to, under Scorsese’s watchful, exacting, creative eye. Scorsese knows how to deploy De Niro, et al, so perfectly that The Irishman achieves perfection even in the face of its own somewhat daunting flaws.
Chief among them is its length. This is quite possibly the longest movie I’ve ever sat through, and by about the third hour, I was beginning to feel it. Extreme length is no rare thing for movies like this — Heat, Scarface, and of course the Godfather pictures, as well as Casino, clock in at 2.5 to 3 hours — but the difference here is that Scorsese slows down time to draw things out. The Irishman is intentionally long and eschews the flash and dazzle that made Casino, say, so much fun to watch. I cannot say that this movie is fun. It is made with care, affection, and attention to detail, and it has many outstanding individual scenes and moments. But taken as a whole, it takes Scorsese forever to reach the final scenes, in which Sheeran seems to be getting what he has coming to him. (And even then, it ends inconclusively.)
The film is tragic and has plenty of scope, but it isn’t about the visceral thrill of BAD GUYS KILLING BAD GUYS, which pretty much defined GoodFellas. The Mafia chieftains are sad about the fact that people must occasionally be killed. There is glee to the executions in GoodFellas and Casino (which has the infamous scene of Pesci crushing a guy’s head in a vice). Here we feel the weight of history as Sheeran carries out his orders without thought or question.
Another flaw comes from the title of the film itself — the marketing makes a point of retitling the film from the book’s title, I Heard You Paint Houses, to The Irishman, but the opening title card uses the original title (very effectively, I should add). At the end of the movie, both titles share the screen! What’s up with that? The book’s original title would have been great as the film’s title, as well. This waffling on the part of the producers — including Scorsese himself — seems distracting. Why not just stick with either/or?
Then there is the de-aging process itself. Simply put, I can tell that there’s something funny going on with the actors’ faces. The effect is done about as well as it can possibly be done, but here’s the thing — Scorsese is using the same technology that he has complained about Marvel using (his “it’s not cinema” argument). My question is, rather than use such a distracting (and potentially disastrous!) technique, why not either have different actors playing the same role (as De Niro and Brando did in Godfather) or cut down on the overall scope of the screenplay? Did we need 20-year-old De Niro in a scene showing Sheeran cutting down German soldiers during the war? Probably not. The Irishman, then, is ambitious to a fault.
But, hell — how does one complain when the movie is this rich, this extraordinary? I could easily see the entire compliment of actors and craftsmen winning Oscars — all well deserved. Scorsese’s only real competition will probably be Tarantino for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and my sneaky suspicion is that this is Tarantino’s year. (His movie was bigger, splashier, somewhat edgier, more fun, less dependent on CGI — and does not carry the stigma of Netflix). The Irishman could legitimately be called too long, and accused of visiting territory that Scorsese has, admittedly, gone over before. I’d say that his winning Best Director is something of a long shot.
Not so the acting. De Niro and Pesci are all but guaranteed nominations. De Niro proves once again why he has the reputation as best actor in the business. He’s done some shit movies over the last 20 years — Meet the Fockers, ladies and gentlemen? — but his Frank Sheeran is a performance that ranks among his greatest. The moment Scorsese’s roving camera finds him seated in that wheelchair in the old folks’ home, addressing the camera from somewhere deep in his memories, we know we are watching Seventies-era Great De Niro.
Pesci dials it down from his RAVING MAFIA LUNATIC roles in Casino and GoodFellas (or from any other movie in his career), portraying Bufalino as the kind of guy who talks softly but carries a big stick. Russell never actually kills anybody himself but has others do the deed for him, which is the real mark of power. Pesci doesn’t have to rant, or threaten anyone with a gun — he’s the guy on top, not the littlest fish in the pond, but the biggest. He gets a lot of good scenes, but the best is when he silently gives Frank a command to kill a guy for touching him — there’s just a shot of his face, glowering, and Frank nods, understanding.
Pacino gets the showiest role as Hoffa, a titanic figure in American politics (and crime), who disappeared without a trace in 1975. This movie does no less than purport to know (via Sheeran) what happened to Hoffa — how he died, who killed him, why it all happened, and what was done with the body. Scorsese takes his time setting up this scenario, explaining it, and letting it happen. We are shown, step by step, the entire process of the hit. I can only say that the fate of the character played by Pesci in GoodFellas was an obvious template for Scorsese here. Pacino gives his all to Hoffa, turning in a performance that’s as good as any he’s ever done. He shifts effortlessly from the LOUD PACINO of Heat to the quiet schemer he immortalized in The Godfather. Amazingly, it’s all of a piece — his Hoffa is a new creation played by an actor with perhaps more tools in his toolbox than even De Niro. This is the performance I hope is rewarded with an Oscar.
Finally, the movie settles down into a sad examination of a man’s final days in a retirement home. We see Frank picking out his own casket, selecting the tomb in which he is to be interred. He uses a walker and finally is confined to a wheelchair. He prays aloud with a priest, knowing that the punishment of old age is nothing compared to the judgment that is still to come. The final shot is haunting, especially when we reflect that De Niro himself is close to Sheeran’s age. For all we know, the actor isn’t even using any makeup or prosthetics to play Old Sheeran. Our heroes have fewer great movies left in them — one reason why The Irishman, for all its flaws, deserves to be seen.