A mobster revisits highlights of his ugly life.
For a while, before its full power kicks in, Martin Scorsese’s new mob epic “plays like a highly watchable retread,” said A.A. Dowd in AVClub.com. The gang’s all here: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, even Godfather alum Al Pacino. And the assignment is “another backstage tour of organized crime,” this time a look back, from old age, at the career of a midlevel thug, Frank Sheeran, who returned from World War II, drifted into enforcement work for a Philadelphia mobster, and eventually accepted the job of killing Teamster kingpin Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. But there’s no glamour in this life. De Niro portrays Sheeran as a passive man, “an instrument of others’ ambition and corruption,” and the approach of death renders his life and his world pathetic in its ignobility.
Much has been made of the anti-aging technology the movie employs, said Richard Lawson in VanityFair.com. Digital Botoxing allows De Niro and the other actors to play younger versions of themselves for much of the film. And though the retouching takes some getting used to, “you forget about it soon enough.” In a way, it conveys “the weight and ravages of time.” Pacino proves wonderfully kinetic as Hoffa, while De Niro makes us see hidden pain in a man who seems to feel nothing, said David Edelstein in NYMag.com. Even so, “it’s Pesci who thrilled me to the core,” not because he’s the same frayed wire he was in Goodfellas, but because he makes Sheeran’s friend the Philly mob boss “almost supernaturally focused and watchful.”
Across the film’s 3½-hour running time, Scorsese does fit in “a kind of gangland greatest hits,” said A.O. Scott in The New York Times. Besides Hoffa’s disappearance, we get the shooting of “Crazy Joe” Gallo and a mob role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But the drama’s centerpiece is a four-person road trip that plays like a John Updike story; “it’s in those quiet moments that the elegiac power of The Irishman really takes hold.” This is a movie, in theaters now and arriving on Netflix Nov. 27, that is concerned with meaning’s erosion. Yes, it’s long and dark—“long like a novel by Dostoyevsky, dark like a painting by Rembrandt.” ■