(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: The Irishman is a regression on multiple fronts for director Martin Scorsese.)
In ancient Egypt, pharaohs would be entombed with everything they needed for the next life: all their treasures and their mummified cats and even their living servants. This was before someone had the bright idea that you could just make lifelike models of the servants and not have to bury people alive. Obviously, in this case, the models weren’t CG … but you get the point. The Irishman sees Martin Scorsese, our greatest living filmmaker — the Ramses II of cinema — nesting below his pyramid, snug in his bed of mob movie hits. At this point, Scorsese has nothing left to prove. He’s made his masterpieces. We can look on his mighty works, and rejoice.
In this one instance, I will not rejoice, because— like Peter Griffin assessing The Godfather — “I did not care for” The Irishman.
Climbing Down from Mount Scorsese
Who will run with me as I make my forward charge and die on this hill? Actually, what we’re about to attempt is more like climbing down from a national monument in the manner of North by Northwest. Scorsese is the George Washington on my Mount Rushmore of filmmakers. It goes without saying that his cinematic legacy is secure. The misgivings of one underwhelmed fan certainly can’t diminish it.
Nevertheless, as I watched The Irishman — a film that has received universal acclaim — I felt the contrarian rearing up in me, chafing against the idea that it was an instant classic on par with some of his other certified masterpieces. The cynic in me, which goes hand-in-hand with the contrarian, wanted to say that critics are being soft on this movie, because it’s Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and no one wants to look bad giving their swan song a negative review when the wind is clearly blowing the other way.
De Niro, if you’re not acquainted with the particulars of the plot, plays the titular Irishman, Frank Sheeran. He’s a mob hitman who gets a phone call from Jimmy Hoffa, inviting him to be “a part of history” based on his house-painting reputation (“paint” being sly mob code for the blood of human targets). He jokes about his prep for killings: “Sometimes with something like this, you might want to go to the bathroom first.” We understand all too well that this advice for bladder care applies to the movie, also.
I’m taking for granted that the reader knows who Jimmy Hoffa is. If you don’t, perchance, not to worry. We’ll address that as this goes along and the diluted power of Hoffa’s name will inform how we wrap this up.
In Gangs of New York, Scorsese used Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, as a mouthpiece for a line from the Book of Revelation: “I know your works. They are neither cold nor hot. So because they are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth.” In a nutshell, that’s how I feel about The Irishman. Scorsese is in a moviemaking league of his own, so you can’t really judge his filmography except in relation to itself. Going by that standard, The Irishman is nothing we haven’t seen from him before. This is Scorsese at his most predictable, overlong, and self-repetitive.
When I say that, it’s with full acknowledgment that I’m a little blogging ant whose accomplishments in life pale in comparison to Scorsese’s. To paraphrase Casablanca: “The [opinions of a movie blogger] don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Sure, I could tell you what works in The Irishmen. But the main reason we’re here is for the airing of some much-needed constructive criticism with regards to Scorsese’s new 3.5-hour film, which hits Netflix on November 27. Time for some tough love.
I Heard You Paint Faces Younger
Apologies in advance to the hard-working people at Industrial Light & Magic and all the rest of the cast and crew of The Irishman. I can well imagine the thrill of receiving a phone call at ILM from Scorsese, his voice pregnant with the deal-making words, “I heard you paint faces younger.”
The Irishman‘s most glaring flaw — the one that anyone who’s cringed during the trailers might be able to see coming — is its digital de-aging, which tries to cheat time but just ends up dragging this drama down into the uncanny valley where stately prestige pics don’t belong. Maybe if I had played more video games, I would be inclined to forgive this flaw. That sounds sarcastic, but I genuinely wonder if the lack of home video game consoles throughout my life has left me ill-prepared to stomach the intrusive visual effects in The Irishman. The compartments in this box of bitter pills are full, lined up in a row for the viewer to swallow like Sheeran’s daily doses of medicine.
Your mileage may vary on whether the de-aging is distracting or not. I found it to be a major stumbling block to my enjoyment of the film (which I wanted to like, believe it or not). Most people will probably watch this movie on the small screen, and who knows, maybe it will be easier to surrender to the willing suspension of disbelief that way. All I can say is, when I watched it on the big screen — with the actors’ faces projected large enough to count their individual liver spots — the CGI stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt like it added this strange, puffy plasticity to their faces, and I would catch their faces rippling or shimmering at odd times—as if they were watery shapeshifters who hadn’t yet perfected their human masquerade.
The Irishman represents a new kind of tech-enabled Kabuki theater. Instead of dolling up men as women, it trots out performers in viscous young-men makeup. To me, the digital makeup looked more like digital Botox. It called attention to itself and made me acutely aware, much of the time, that the movie was ushering me into a world dominated by decrepit old white men and their game-faced juniors (Academy voters, get your ballots ready! For your consideration: Goodfellas 3: The Golden Years.)
In the end, it left me feeling that some reviewers are too charitable and that this definitely did not need to be a $160 million movie. With Hugo, Scorsese showed himself capable of evolving and embracing technological trends like 3-D. The Irishman made me long for the days when he would just put actors in front of the camera and not muck with their faces on the computer.
The Leo-Shaped Flashback Hole
Maybe I’m just a Luddite and need to get with the times and embrace the possibility of a digitally resurrected James Dean. Or maybe there’s a layer of inherent visual artifice that comes with, say, a Star Wars film, which helps muddy the field, letting you know, deep down, that most of what you’re looking at is fake, so you can more easily accept its otherwise bizarre CG resurrections (Peter Cushing) and “youthifications” (Carrie Fisher passed away a week and a half after the world saw her young digital likeness pasted on a body double in Rogue One).
Whatever the case, as an Internet nobody and lifelong Scorsese and De Niro fan, albeit one who’s literally half their age (they’re both 76 and I’m 38), I can only fantasize about what it might have been like if The Irishman had done things the old-fashioned way and brought in Scorsese’s frequent collaborator, Leonardo DiCaprio, to play the young Frank Sheeran.
Retroactive fan-casting is the last refuge of the disappointed moviegoer. At the same time, to really make this constructive criticism, it needs to have a suggestion for how to make things better, even if it’s a bad one. So let’s go with the idea of Leo-led flashbacks, for posterity. De Niro himself convinced us that he was the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II (this, despite taking the stage after Marlon Brando, which was no easy feat, back then).
Across five movies with Scorsese, DiCaprio has already carved out a niche as a new 21st-century De Niro of sorts, and he’s an accomplished enough actor that he or another actor of his caliber might have added a more seamless human touch to this movie. With Scorsese bringing back so many of his previous collaborators for The Irishman (De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, various Vinyl and Boardwalk Empire faces), it almost feels like the gang’s all here, anyway, except for DiCaprio.
Scorsese already directed De Niro and DiCaprio in a 2015 short film entitled The Audition. The 16-minute, $70-million film was bankrolled by a Chinese casino. Wikipedia tells me that it’s never had a commercial release. Since most people outside Asia haven’t seen it and the novelty factor’s still there, imagine how brain-melting it would have been to see DiCaprio join the cast of The Irishman, in addition to all these other legendary performers. A real, flesh-and-blood actor like him, instead of a video game approximation of De Niro in a World War II helmet, would have been such a simple, graceful solution. It would have rescued this movie from expensive CG fakery and filled in a big missing face hole in the reunion pic from Scorsese’s filmography.
As it is, what Scorsese gives us with The Irishman is an unglamorous return to mob movie territory, where the men’s half-CG faces are now fraying at the edges, skin-walking in unnatural ways. It’s as if the production itself forms a metatextual recrimination of itself, bolstering Scorsese’s lesson on human frailty and mortality with the lesson that you really can’t turn back the clock, even with the most advanced filmmaking techniques.
I can see where an apologist for The Irishman might use this to prop up the argument that the film’s flaws are a feature, not a bug. They feed directly into its theme, you see. To that, I would counter that “the play’s the thing” wherein Scorsese’s own conscience, or the universe itself, perhaps, has caught him as a filmmaker. Actors aren’t Benjamin Button: they can’t age in reverse, and maybe it’s vanity to think you can convince us otherwise in the context of a drama with an ostensibly human focus.
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