As cinema's new normal continues to settle in, with top-shelf Oscar contenders now being produced by streaming services, Martin Scorsese's three hour, thirty minute crime epic The Irishman is given a mere monthlong theatrical run before it lands at its permanent home on Netflix, the studio that financed it.
The film is based on Charles Brandt's nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses. (Indeed, Scorsese uses this as his film's title in both opening and closing credits; "The Irishman" appears only once at the end, as a reluctant concession to Netflix.) "Painting houses" is code for what The Irishman's titular character, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), actually did for a living: killing people.
Spanning his life from the 1950s until the end of the 20th century, The Irishman has Frank reminiscing on his days doing jobs for both the Philadelphia mafia, run by Russell Bufalino (Scorsese stalwart Joe Pesci, coming out of retirement), and the Teamsters union, run by the legendary Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Bufalino and Hoffa weren't just Frank's bosses, they were his best friends. And given Hoffa's murky real-life fate, we sense early on that Russell and Jimmy will eventually pull Frank into opposite directions, with tragic consequences.
Although I never found it boring, The Irishman is surprisingly intimate, a departure from Scorsese's previous De Niro/Pesci mob epics Goodfellas and Casino, with their reeling cameras and flashy editing. Shot mostly in closeups and over-the-shoulders, it's as though Scorsese still believes television screens to be tiny, and so purposefully shot his "made for TV" movie with less visual panache than usual. (Even Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is restrained.) But it suits the film's elegiac mood: with onetime scenery chewers De Niro and Pesci now sitting around with slumped shoulders and speaking in hushed tones (only Pacino gets to chew the scenery, which is apt, as Hoffa was known for doing same), The Irishman is very much an Old Man Movie – a nostalgic saga about loyalty, a subject clearly close to Scorsese's heart.
That said, conspiracy theorists will delight in the script, adapted by A-list screenwriter Steven Zaillian. If taken as fact, The Irishman would confirm the rumors you've heard about the mob helping JFK get elected; the mob influencing the Bay of Pigs invasion; Hoffa propping up the Nixon campaign with illegal donations; JFK being whacked by the mob; Hoffa being whacked by the mob. (I don't see the latter as a spoiler: who really believes Hoffa disappeared on his own accord and retired to the Adirondacks?) In any event, it certainly makes a case for how important a figure Jimmy Hoffa really was.
Many will hail The Irishman as a masterpiece; some may just squirm at its deliberate pace. Here again, Scorsese might have been thinking, "I'm making this for television. I'm assume many viewers will pause it and pick it up the next day, so why not take my time with it." And not everything works about it: a plot thread involving Frank's daughter Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin, who does little but stare accusingly at De Niro) is too obvious, with Peggy's lifelong fear of Bufalino and love for Hoffa meant to guide her father's conscience. It might make sense if the film made Bufalino out to be a bad guy, or Hoffa out to be a good one, but it doesn't. (In real life, both men were pretty rotten, as was Sheeran.) But regardless of petty quibbles, this is a classy, mature piece of cinema – a truly veteran achievement, regardless of screen size.