The Irishman Was...Disappointing
Never has a movie made me so sad. And not because a character dies or has their heart broken. The film made me sad because it utterly fails to enable you to feel anything for the characters at all. Indeed there are no characters in this film, only actors. Expensive actors. Old actors with botox pretending to be young actors. I am as large a Scorsese fan as any. But this is not, as some of his critics are suggesting, his magnum opus. Not by a long shot.
The film tells the story of an Irishman named Frank Sheeran played by Robert De Niro—the most famous character actor of Italian Americans ever—surrounded by…Italian Americans. In a failed attempt to make De Niro's outsider status clear, he has blue eyes, making him look not so much Irish but—with his digitised non-features—inhuman, like some fleshy chromatic cyborg.
You can tell the story was adapted from a book and not written for the screen because of how lacking in cinematic weight some of the plot points are. Why does Sheeran have a wife and spontaneously dump her for another woman? Why does he get involved in crime so late? The film is three and a half hours long and we see nothing of his childhood. With so much screen time, somehow so little is explained. With unlimited resources at the command of the film’s nine—yes, nine—producers, somehow so little happens.
The film boasts a cast of what could be the top 100 list of significant Italian-American actors of the last several decades. But there is no acting master class here. This is not because De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are not talented. We all know they are. But at the age of 76, 76 and 79 respectively, they are far from the peak of their powers. This would not matter so much if they played characters vaguely within their own age bracket. Instead they are subjected to the indignity of being conspicuously old men hobbling around pretending to be young. At one point Pesci's character (Bufalino), while on the phone to Pacino's (Hoffa) says he would hand the receiver to the kid, referring, unironically, to De Niro’s character. Then there is this scene in which Sheeran metes out the weakest mob justice in cinematic history:
The story is technically set in the modern era, with Sheeran narrating a prolonged flashback of his life of crime. It was therefore to some extent inevitable that the actors would have to play characters older or younger than themselves. But if you need an actor to play a 30 year old in one scene and an 80 year old in another, common sense suggests you cast a middle aged actor, someone who can be made to look any adult age with the right costume and make-up. But push it too far not even CGI can save you and the whole thing starts to look like a farce.
Perhaps the allure of using the greats was irresistible. Why take some upstart when you can have De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, the best of modern times? The answer is that you are not going to be able to capture the attention of an audience when there is a total mismatch between the actor's characteristics and the character's. The audience is no longer looking at a character but an actor.
Now, I have a confession to make. I did not finish this film. Just after half-way—after over two hours of basically nothing happening, with no identifiable characters or sense of any impending event of interest—I gave up. I even tried again the next day and couldn’t bear another half an hour. Does this disqualify me from reviewing it? Maybe. But I can assure you, the critics are too blinded by their justly warm feelings towards many of those associated with this film to review it objectively. And anyway, in failing to finish it I am in good company. On its first day of release only 20% of those who started it made it more than 70% of the way through. I rest my case.