With so many movies now debuting simultaneously on streaming services and in cinemas, I try my best to catch the notable ones on the big screen. But since The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to HBO's beloved crime series The Sopranos, it just seemed right to watch it on HBO Max. And in the end, despite its wider-than-wide screen ratio, it still feels like TV.
The film's main selling point is that Michael Gandolfini, whose late father James Gandolfini anchored The Sopranos as the infinitely troubled Tony Soprano, plays Tony as a teenager in 1971. But I get a vague sense that Sopranos/Many Saints creator David Chase, who cowrote the screenplay with Lawrence Konner, didn't pitch HBO much more than that. He certainly doesn't deliver much more than that.
Gandolfini figlio is a decent enough actor, but he displays none of his father's intensity. So while Many Saints promises to show us how the unremarkable young Tony Soprano became a ruthless crime boss, we don't see any of it. It's as though Chase, Konner, and director Alan Taylor (who helmed a handful of Sopranos episodes) didn't trust the young Gandolfini's chops, and thus Tony Soprano barely even factors into the story, what there is of it. Instead we have to follow a different antihero whom we've never met before: "Hollywood" Dickie Moltisanti, father of doomed Sopranos character Christopher Moltisanti. (Michael Imperioli provides some voiceover narration from Christopher's grave.) While Alessandro Nivola isn't bad as Dickie, the character is a generic smooth criminal. He makes a few shady deals, looks good in his suits, and occasionally loses his temper and kills someone close to him. But he never incites our fear or fascination.
Other actors fleetingly portray younger versions of famous Sopranos characters, from Vera Farmiga's glammed-up take on Tony's mother Livia ("Poor you!") to John Magaro's hilariously spot-on imitation of Steven Van Zandt's Silvio. Out of the whole cast, only Ray Liotta, the Goodfella himself, acquits himself well as a pair of twins, one of whom has that unique Sopranos eccentricity that Many Saints should have been filled with. It's the only interesting character in the film.
The Many Saints of Newark looks swell, but it feels like the first couple of installments in a ten-episode series that never was. It doesn't take the time to develop any of the characters, least of all Tony Soprano, yet it offers no feature-length plot to keep you excited or engaged. In a word, it's forgettable.