When Roger Ebert first saw The Brown Bunny, a 2003 semi-experimental drama, he called it the worst movie to ever play the Cannes Film Festival. But after director Vincent Gallo cut 26 minutes, Ebert revised his opinion, giving the film three out of four stars.
“It is said that editing is the soul of the cinema,” Ebert wrote. “In the case of The Brown Bunny, it is its salvation.”
Buried beneath the surface of The Irishman is a good, maybe great, film. But as with the original Bunny, director Martin Scorsese’s crime epic is often undisciplined, unpleasant, rambling and narratively flawed, which is a cinematic tragedy considering what could have been accomplished with a tighter edit and a minor rewrite to flesh out the characters, particularly the women. Alternately titled I Heard You Paint Houses (a metaphor for bloody murder), the film doesn’t need a new paint job as much as a remodel.
Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 nonfiction book, which purports to solve the 1975 disappearance of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, the film focuses on Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Though he began as a truck driver, Sheeran became a powerful union boss thanks to his ties to the Bufalino crime family, specifically Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
It was his friendship with Russell that led Sheeran to Hoffa (Al Pacino), for whom he served as confidante, bodyguard and hitman, according to Brandt. The details of that relationship have been disputed, but the truth matters little in the context of Scorsese’s film. This isn’t a documentary, and the book is great source material regardless of the facts.
Because the film takes place from the early 1950s to the early 2000s, the actors must age. So Scorsese and his effects team apply astonishing “youth-anizing” technology to De Niro, Pesci and Pacino. The effect is initially off-putting, mostly because we are expecting re-creations of the actors as young men. Instead, we see what they might have looked like in a different genetic incarnation. Sure, Scorsese could have hired younger actors and aged them with makeup, but he wanted these guys, and the latest computer wizardry has made it possible.
Regrettably, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay doesn’t show equal care for their insides. Indeed, one never gets to truly know the three men, and minor characters portrayed by Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin are even more underdeveloped. Though De Niro’s voiceover grows tiresome and Pacino sometimes seems to be caricaturing himself (with lots of yelling and inconsistent dialect work), it’s admittedly difficult to look away. Yet it’s Pesci, out of retirement, who gives the most nuanced performance.
The Irishman demands patience, as it’s packed with Scorsese’s obsessions and quirks, many of which involve overused violence, misplaced humor and the interminable use of the term “cocksucker.” But in the second half, the legendary director surprisingly exchanges the Goodfellas vibe for a style more akin to Silence, his masterful epic from 2016. The change of pace is refreshing but also jarring, making one wonder if this movie, which runs three and a half hours, might have worked better as a Netflix miniseries. In its current form, one is stuck by the stylistic inconsistency and, frankly, lack of humanity.
There’s a reason I’m awarding it two-and-a-half stars, which represents the mathematical middle on a five-star scale. You should make up your own mind. If you’re a Scorsese devotee, this will be your 2019 Thanksgiving feast. But if you’re a detractor or just casual fan, you’ll likely side with Rotten Tomatoes, which says the star rating is rotten.
But The Irishman is far from rotten. At its heart, it’s a unique account of friendship, trust and betrayal between three men. But Scorsese, chasing his mob mania, can’t resist involving more characters and vignettes than he can handle. He wants to have his cake and kill it too.