‘The Irishman’ Is Scorsese’s Worst Movie Since ‘New York, New York’

It’s strange that Martin Scorsese is so critical of Marvel movies since he just made his own superhero movie. Robert De Niro is Irishman, the hero with the power to get young again and fight for, uh, trucking unions? Scorsese doesn’t usually make outright bad movies. Even his disappointments have something interesting or ambitious about them. The Irishman is actually a bad movie.

The Irishman - Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in The Irishman | Netflix

It’s probably not as bad as New York New York. Scorsese’s attempt at a musical was disastrous. The Irishman does show a self-indulgent filmmaker with too much freedom though. Studios didn’t want to make The Irishman, but Netflix gave him the money and let him release it at 209 minutes. The Irishman did not need to be such a sprawling story. This is not Once Upon a Time in America although perhaps Scorsese hoped it would be.

The Crime of ‘The Irishman’ is not as interesting as ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Casino’

Scorsese assembled his regulars De Niro and Joe Pesci, but the story of The Irishman already begins at a deficit to Goodfellas or Casino. Frank Sheeran (De Niro) meets Russell Bufalino (Pesci) who takes Frank under his wing in Philadelphia crime. It begins with stolen steaks, which are not exactly Henry Hill’s mob errands or gambling schemes.

Al Pacino in The Irishman
Al Pacino in The Irishman | Netflix

Even when the crimes escalate to sabotaging taxis, delivering guns to Cuban nationals, or committing murder, the macro story makes them less compelling. Frank gets involved with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), so all his crimes pertain to the trucking union. Of course, it’s building up to the legendary mystery of Hoffa’s disappearance, but The Irishman gets so bogged down in union politics it lacks the universal aspirations of Goodfellas or the universal vice of gambling.

In three and a half hours, relationships are still thin

Despite the bloated running time, relationships that are supposed to be important come across as slight. Russell is supposed to be a mentor to Frank, but by the time their relationship is threatened, Russell has appeared in the movie so sporadically it’s a shock to realize oh, they’re supposed to be close.

The Irishman spends a lot of time on Hoffa’s pet peeve of people being late to meetings. He even provokes people whose support he needs in what seems an attempt to be this movie’s version of “How am I funny?” Hoffa may have been a hero to unions but Scorsese is taking a lot for granted with audiences in 2019 who do not drive trucks. 

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in The Irishman
Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in The Irishman | Netflix

At one point, Frank’s daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) cuts him off. That should be a tragic consequence of his lifestyle, but we’ve never seen them be close. The Irishman assumes it’s universally poignant to lose one’s family, but the audience gets to know Peggy as little as Frank did. Casino packed a lot into three hours. The Irishman does a lot less in a lot more time.

What is ‘The Irishman’ even about?

Scorsese’s previous crime stories certainly appealed to audiences who were not in the mob. That’s because they were about something bigger than crime. Henry Hill’s story was about the hubris of being seduced by a life of crime and believing you are above the law. Casino was about that hubris too, and how volatile personalities can collapse even the best house of cards.

The Irishman may also be inspired by true crime, but it’s little more than a history lesson. Sure, Frank committed crimes. Sure, Hoffa disappeared and this may be a valid theory as to what happened. If it was supposed to be about how the violent lifestyle cost Frank his family, that message is lost. It’s still not enough though. Personal consequences are great but what are the universal ones?

Scorsese used Marvel technology for ‘The Irishman’

Marvel wasn’t the first studio to de-age its actors (hello, Tron: Legacy) but they perfected it. So it’s ironic that Scorsese hates Marvel when he totally used the technology they pioneered. It’s also funny that in previous movies, De Niro and Pesci aged up to play the later scenes. Now they get de-aged to play the earlier scenes.

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in The Irishman
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in The Irishman | Netflix

The effect is mostly effective. I thought De Niro and Pacino still carried themselves like 70-year-olds while the visual effects made them look younger. I’m surprised too, since De Niro especially was great at older body language when he was younger. I’m surprised he’d miss that detail of this technique. 

Should you see ‘The Irishman’ in a theater?

Netflix is releasing The Irishman in theaters November 1 before it premieres on Netflix November 27. Scorsese will probably tell you it was still meant for the big screen, although the intent is surely to qualify for Oscars. It’s not the theatrical experience that Roma was. 

Home viewing might actually improve The Irishman. It’s so long that just having it on in the background will let you pick out the highlights while you’re doing something else. That’s still not good enough. Even filmmakers directing for Netflix have to offer movies to which you want to pay full attention.