The Fat Man is a learned critic of cinema. I welcome his contributions and hope to see him on a regular basis.
There are many ways to consider The Irishman, Scorsese’s’ latest, and hopefully last, gangster pic. We can try to at least mention them all but it may be best to see it as another allegorical mock epic. Almost the entirety of post-war US history not only acts as a backdrop to the film, but the movie suggests its main characters were central players in such events as the Kennedy assassination, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban missile crises, perhaps even Watergate. The baby boomers can’t get over their all but irrelevant history of air conditioned atavism and faux passivism. They have no epic story to tell, so they are continually painting up their cowardice in the face of a minor war or their alternating deification and denunciation of their fallen non-hero, JFK.
It is no shame that Scorsese reveals himself as sentimental and self-deluding in The Irishman. Many great films begin with cherished delusions, like the tradition of the Ronin or the hooker-with- a-heart-of-gold. Marty and Paul Schrader did wonders with that last fantasy in Taxi Driver, with the whore/Madonna duo played by Cybil Shepard and Jodie Foster. The fact that poor Jodie was still prepubescent was just a cute detail, like attending college to avoid the draft and then going on to graduate studies to learn to justify it to the memory of the poor guys that got killed. But at least Taxi was, in its dysfunctional characters and their infantile motivations, funny. “He’s not a murderer, he’s a Sagittarius” (or was it an Aquarius), protests Jodie Foster’s character, Iris, to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle for criticizing her pimp, Sport. That may be the funniest line to come out of Hollywood in the 1970’s.
I guess it’s time to address the details of The Irishman and justify all this scorn I’m heaping. Let’s start with funny. It’s not. The cheap laughs squeezed out by mocking the blue-collar naivety of the regular-guy-come-psychopath, Frank Sheeran, the movies protagonist played by De Niro, are so hackneyed they will make you squirm. The rest is humorless. How Scorsese managed to get one of the most naturally funny actors of the 1970’s and 80’s, Joe Pesci, to turn in a joyless performance will remain a mystery.
But, you may ask, why is funny so important. This is big stuff, Pacino, De Niro, Pesci, Keitel, the all-stars, it’s an epic, remember?
It’s true Scorsese swung for the fences on this one, as he did with The Aviator, The Age of Innocence and The Gangs of New York. You’d think he’d learn. Not satisfied with his one true contribution to American cinema, Raging Bull, a small movie perfectly drawn, he continues to balk at the big canvas. He can’t do it. All of his attempts, whether he juices them with amazing sets as in Gangs, or beautiful costumes like in Age, or a remarkable profile like Howard Hughes, fail for the same reason. He can’t tell that story. He can scare us and make us laugh, but he can’t move us. His work can be natural or abstract but never profound. He knows it, as all directors do that pile on the violence. They’re impotent so they pour on the blood.
And Scorsese, as usual, does pour on the blood. We make our way through Frank’s mournful decent from hard working family man to prolific serial killer. We are told the war was to blame where he was asked to unofficially execute German prisoners. His wonders why these prisoners were so compliant in digging their own graves. He asks himself maybe they thought they would get a break if they did a good job? It never occurs to him they were just taking more orders, the same process that dehumanized them in the camps and him.
The Irishman is quiet for a Scorsese movie, without any of the Eric Clapton that accompanied the mayhem in Goodfellars. A number of times, in the background score and in shots of empty rooms through partially open doors we see references to that most quiet of directors, Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu, who directed Tokyo Story, is of course admired by Scorsese but unlike the Italian neo realists that he loves, Ozu and his peaceful style is wholly unsuited to a gangster movie. It’s a clue of what Scorsese is trying to do. Make peace. It explains the unfunny Pesci performance and the banality of De Niro’s narration. Scorsese never had the hand to paint the kind of movie that his contemporaries Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola did. He could never shoot a scene like Brando in his office listening to the undertaker or like John Huston and Jack Nicholson discussing broiled fish. So he made up for it with rotating camera’s in the ring and forensic dialog ripped from FBI files.
But in The Irishman he tries Ozu and we get a whispering Joe Pesci saying “I chose us” to De Niro at the movies end to explain Hoffa’s betrayal. And Hoffa was betrayed, by Scorsese, by Pacino, by everyone who might be interested in what he did build into his union. It must be a curse to try to do a film about the union boss. Nicholson’s Hoffa was terrible, but at least he wasn’t transformed by an aging Italian actor and his friend’s pathetic confession into a one-dimensional stooge. Nothing is examined, nothing explained, just gossip.
And that is the reason the Irishman is a terrible movie. You can’t attempt to depict the sweep of a generation without saying something about why it matters. But because his generation still lies about the meaning of Kennedys and Castro and war, Scorsese has to lie as well. And so he does for the three hours of The Irishman.