Martin Scorsese does not romanticize criminal life. Sometimes people seem to think he does, but I’ve never felt that way. Be it Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, maybe it’s the fact he doesn’t thump you over the head with his feels about the world of crime that people don’t realize what he’s doing. Maybe it’s because he’s such a great filmmaker. The way he tells the story of Goodfellas, and I am a basic dude inasmuch as I love that movie and think it’s an all-time great, is so gripping and propulsive that you are loving the ride. Perhaps your enjoyment of the film at Scorsese’s hands causes confusion when it comes time to assess the storytelling. I will say this with a fair amount of confidence: Nobody is going to think The Irishman glorifies a life of crime. It doesn’t even glorify being alive.
I think Scorsese is a genius, but I do not seek out all of his films, or love them all. However, The Irishman was not one I was going to miss, even if it is about three-and-a-half hours long. For one, Scorsese doesn’t have many movies left in him. That’s just a fact of age, and after watching this movie it’s VERY clear that Scorsese is aware of human frailty. Plus, there is a trio of actors starring in this film that I was pumped to see acting together. We’ve got Robert De Niro, back at it with Scorsese. We’ve got Al Pacino, somehow making his first Scorsese film. Then, and I kid you not, there’s Joe Pesci, who came out of a long retirement for this one.
De Niro is the titular Irishman Frank Sheeran, because Scorsese seems preoccupied with casing De Niro as anything other than an Italian guy. This is another true story of the world of crime, based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses. The thing is, Sheeran does his house painting with blood, as he goes from being a truck driver and teamster to being a hitman, thanks in part to his friend Russell Bufalino, played by Pesci. Along the way, Sheeran also becomes friends with Jimmy Hoffa, a man whose place in history is well established. He was the powerful president of the teamsters union, and one day he disappeared. The movie has an explanation for that, but also it isn’t really about that. It is handled matter of factly, like everything in this film.
Scorsese shoots the movie beautifully, of course, but there is ZERO romanticism to The Irishman. It’s harsh and bleak about everything, including aging. You know how in Goodfellas Henry Hill has a wild and crazy life and seems like he has some fun along the way. Sheeran has no fun, it seems. He just lives. Everybody just lives. Until they die, and everybody dies. Sometimes they die violently. Sometimes they get cancer and die in prison. That’s the world of The Irishman.
This is a strange beast. It’s a bleak, 209-minute movie, but it isn’t a slog. The Irishman is a really good film. In particular, the acting is fantastic. De Niro gives what I think is the best performance of the year. Pacino hasn’t been this good in a long time. He’s giving a big performance, like basically every Pacino performance of the last 30 years, but he doesn’t chew the scenery too much. Pesci…well, he’s good. I feel like maybe the hype was too high for Pesci’s return to acting. Of the big three in the movie, he gives what I think is the third-best performance. That being said, I think De Niro and Pacino are worthy of Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively, so that isn’t faint praise.
This feels like it could be Scorsese’s last film. It would be a fitting coda for a man who made his name on directing gangster pictures. The Irishman is as much about getting old, and living with your regrets, as anything else. That’s not as fun as Henry and Karen being chased by a helicopter while Harry Nilsson plays, and that kind of feels like the point.