After a lot of publicity surrounding the digital de-aging of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has arrived on Netflix (it remains on some local movie screens, too), and it’s a very good offering from the auteur. It has a few problems, but the opportunity to see De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci in a movie together under the Great One’s tutelage more than overrides the shortfalls.
The film is based on a book about Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) called I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually the name of the film in the opening credits. Sheeran was a labor-union official and occasional hitman who had ties to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The film, like the book, claims that he was the actual triggerman in the assassination of Hoffa.
The film covers a lengthy time span: We see Sheeran from his 30s up until shortly before his death in his 80s. He’s played by De Niro throughout—and the much-ballyhooed digital de-aging is mostly a bust. There are moments when De Niro looks perhaps a tad younger than 76, his actual age (he might pass for 58), but it always looks like bad makeup, dye jobs and funky lighting rather than high-tech effects at work. Plus, these digitally enhanced, oddly smooth faces have old voices, and are on bodies with stiff postures.
Distracting effects aside, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are amazing, no matter what age they are depicting. Scorsese has made a nice companion piece to his gangster epic Goodfellas (I consider Casino one of his few missteps); this is an ugly depiction of the loneliness and alienation that results from things like shooting your friends in the head.
Goodfellas had a rather likable, and unintentionally funny, antihero in Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, but none of the main guys in this movie are likable. Sheeran, in particular, is terrible; De Niro depicts the guy as a meathead, a lackey who takes orders from the likes of Pesci’s Russell Bufalino and Pacino’s Hoffa. Sheeran is quietly despicable and evil at his core.
Pacino gives the film a little fun as a blustering, ice-cream-obsessed Hoffa. He’s also the angriest guy in the movie, with Pacino sinking his teeth into many opportunities to go from zero to 100 in mere seconds. Pacino shares a couple of scenes with Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano, one of the men suspected of participating in Hoffa’s eventual disappearance in 1975. Pacino and Graham square off in a way that goes right into the “Best Pacino Moments” time capsule.
The film has an epic scope; it’s 3 1/2 hours long, so I suspect there will be a lot of pausing for bathroom and snack breaks due to its presence on Netflix, and that’s too bad. I think Scorsese should’ve put an intermission in the middle, perhaps choosing a preferred moment for the viewer to gather themselves up for the film’s great finale.
Seeing De Niro and Pesci sharing scenes again—speaking Italian and dipping bread in wine—is a holiday season cinematic gift like no other. This is De Niro’s best work in years, and Pesci gets a chance to play a subdued role in a Scorsese flick, which pays major dividends. He depicts Bufalino as a quiet, polite and extremely dangerous man, and it’s mesmerizing.
With the decade coming to a close, The Wolf of Wall Street remains Scorsese’s best effort of the 2010s—but that’s more high praise for Wolf than a put-down of The Irishman, which is a fine film, even if it comes up short of being a masterpiece. If this is Scorsese and De Niro’s final film together, they are going out on a high note.
The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix. It’s also playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).