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The Unreasonable Brilliance of Joe Pesci

After two decades spent mostly off-screen, he returns in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’—a role unlike any we’re used to from him

Ringer illustration

Deep into Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese’s mesmerizingly brutal 1980 biopic of troubled boxer Jake LaMotta, we find our hero, played by one Robert De Niro, at a professional high (he just pounded the shit out of Laurent Dauthuille) but also at one of his myriad personal lows (he misses his little brother). That would be Joey, Jake’s former manager and confidante; the two haven’t talked much following an unpleasant disagreement as to whether Joey had sex with Jake’s wife, Vickie. (He didn’t; Jake beat him up anyway.) It is Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), in fact, who now implores her husband to call up Joey and reconcile: “Just tell him you’re sorry, you miss him. He’s your brother. You have to talk to him sooner or later.”

Jake, after a pregnant and manly Scorsese-movie-type pause, agrees. Vickie drops the coins and dials the number; Jake replaces her in the phone booth, shutting the door when his brother picks up. But our hero can’t think of anything to say, and so, tragically, he doesn’t say anything.

Joey is, as usual, irritated, and assumes he’s being pranked by one of his mobbed-up friends, and clues us in to the fact that Jake has made this call, and clammed up while making it, before:

“Salvy, this ain’t funny anymore. That you? Is it you? I know somebody’s there, I can hear you breathing.” (Joey, incidentally, beat up Salvy earlier in the movie.) But Jake is speechless, paralyzed by Scorsese-movie-type macho pathos, until Joey finally gets well and truly fed up. Specifically, as who he fails to recognize as his big brother continues to sit there impassive and mute, Joey makes the following observation:

Crucially, iconically, miraculously, Joey is played by Joe Pesci, which means you can clearly hear this line even if you’ve never actually heard it. That pinched, aggrieved, high-pitched yap, nasal and comical and absolutely lethal, as though delivered by a chihuahua the size of a brontosaurus. Every individual word its own blood-soaked aria, a masterpiece of perfect diction and volcanic rage: Fucking! Big! Fucking! Elephant! Dicks! It’s hilarious. It’s terrifying. Joey hangs up, and after a mournful beat Jake does, too, and mouths a pained “Let’s go” to his wife, and is very soon getting the shit pounded out of him by Sugar Ray Robinson as Joey watches helplessly at home on TV, as close as you’d ever want Joe Pesci to get to subdued.

Ten years later, Pesci, De Niro, and Scorsese would reconvene for 1990’s majestic Goodfellas, an all-universe highlight for everyone involved, despite the fact that it won but a single Oscar. (The Academy sucks ... well, never mind.) That Oscar, of course, went to Pesci, for Best Supporting Actor, and occasioned a gracious acceptance speech consisting of exactly five words, none of which, miraculously, were expletives. (“It’s my privilege. Thank you.”)

Pesci beat out Andy Garcia in The Godfather Part III and Al Pacino in Dick Tracy, by the way. That’s funny, right? The Scorsese–De Niro–Pesci triumvirate returned for 1995’s far longer and harsher Casino, but by decade’s end, Pesci was pretty officially retired, his filmography as crowd-pleasing (from 1990’s massive Home Alone and its 1992 sequel to his three-movie stint in the Lethal Weapon series) as it was prestigious. (The goofy My Cousin Vinny, also from ’92, nonetheless entered Oscar lore as well.)

Compared with, say, his old pal Robert De Niro, Pesci kept his flop rate admirably low (though 1997 did bring an ungrateful world both Gone Fishin’ and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag) and kept his head down, indulging few interviews and fewer public spectacles of any kind. (Here’s our man yukking it up on David Letterman, though, cigar in hand.) Pesci saved most of his words, and the vast majority of his rage, for the screen, and then, when he’d expended it all, despite being in only his mid-50s at the time, he mostly quit the business and shut up too.

But now, 29 years after Goodfellas, comes The Irishman. Maybe you heard about it. Scorsese. De Niro. Pesci. Also—in what is, incredibly, his Scorsese debut—Pacino. Three hours and 30 minutes. Weird-as-hell de-aging technology. A brief theatrical window (not having to leave to use the bathroom during this film is my single greatest 2019 accomplishment) before it hits Netflix on Wednesday. Yes, Netflix. There’s also a whole Marty-vs.-Marvel sideshow we won’t get into. (It’s my privilege. You’re welcome.)

The Irishman is (yeesh) very long and very harsh (in a ravages-of-time sense) and very delightful (“You always charge a guy with a gun! With a knife, you run away!”) even at its draggiest. There remains, as the past several months have proved, no shortage of think-piece cannon fodder to fire and/or dodge. But amid that tumult, nothing can quite prepare you for the momentous sight of Joe Pesci on screen again, a 76-year-old prince who skulks through gas stations and nightclubs and steakhouses like a malevolent old owl, his thick glasses gleaming, his priceless brontosaurus-yap of a voice time-worn and frail. And yet, and yet, when he quietly says, “It’s what it is,” that’s what it is.

The movie’s finest and/or flashiest moments tend to involve Pacino’s spitting chunks of scenery directly into De Niro’s face. (The “you’re all fuckin’ idiots” scene is an instant classic.) Some Irishman ads, in fact, specifically designate Pesci’s character, mafioso heavyweight Russell Bufalino, as “The Quiet One.” That’s a new one. But Pesci’s presence—his weight, his terrible gravity, his subtle malignance—is absolutely crucial.

He initially turned down the role 40 times, goes the lore: “I said, ‘Joe, you gotta,’” is how De Niro himself explained his pitch, chatting alongside Pacino recently with GQ’s Zach Baron. As both a violent movie and a violently debated cultural artifact, The Irishman is preoccupied with the violence of the aging process itself, and the very probable fact that we won’t see this particular combination of famous gentlemen perpetrating violence onscreen again. If so, Pesci’s going out with the precise opposite of a bang, which is to say the precise opposite of the way he usually goes out. But you will feel the mortifying and life-affirming sting of every word he says regardless. That’s what it’s always been.

In one of the precious few journalist anecdotes Joe Pesci has deigned to share during his relatively brief and positively incandescent career, he’s golfing with a buddy when he experiences, on the first tee, a full-blown identity crisis. He’d teed up. He’d started his backswing. And then he’d stopped, dazed, disturbed, disassociated. “I didn’t know who the hell was about to hit that golf ball,” Pesci recalled to The Baltimore Sun in 1992. “Was it Leo Getz or David Ferrie or Tommy or Harry or Joe? I’ve spent so much time as somebody else, and so little time as myself, I lost sight of who I was for an instant.”

That this qualifies as a good problem to have doesn’t make it not a problem. “People don’t realize that you give up your life for success,” he continued. “Some mornings I look in the mirror and say, ‘Who is that old guy?’” That was 27 years ago. They hadn’t even put out Lethal Weapon 3 yet. But there was a menacing and thrilling Old Soul quality to Pesci from the very beginning, less a sense that he was never young than a certainty that he was never not a national treasure.

Unless you were a huge fan of his cameo in 1961’s Hey, Let’s Twist! (Letterman sure was) or 1976’s The Death Collector (a low-budget mafia jam costarring his longtime musical and comedic partner Frank Vincent), you likely met Pesci in Raging Bull, as a foul-mouthed brother and manager and oracle of wisdom always willing to give the great Jake LaMotta the business whenever Jake deserved it, which was always.

Nobody has ever deployed the “you [insult], you” construction with more finesse, or beaten the crap out of a guy with less finesse, and that is the totality of the Joe Pesci experience, his tongue-lashings brutal (“Try a little more fuckin’ and a little less eatin’”) and his car-door-lashings more brutal still. His tenderly macho rapport with De Niro, from the “Hit me in the face” scene forward, is a fearsome and timeless thing of black-and-white-blood-soaked beauty, and just as importantly, Raging Bull is crucial in establishing the Scorsese template of one Worried Guy begging a second Harried Guy to talk some sense into a third Unreasonable Guy.

Pesci gets to be the Harried Guy this time, trying and operatically failing to talk any sense into his self-annihilating screwball of a big brother (“Jesus Christ could come off the cross, he don’t give a fuck”), and earning his first Oscar nomination (also for Best Supporting Actor) in the process. But he’d also play the other two roles to perfection in time. The Unreasonable Guy, especially.

Goodfellas is his masterpiece, Scorsese’s masterpiece, America’s masterpiece; as aspiring made man Tommy DeVito, Pesci is magnetic and repulsive from the first scene, in which he stabs a dude in a car trunk with a comically large butcher knife. You can further argue that American cinema specifically peaks with the seven consecutive seconds of mortifying silence following the “Funny Like a Clown?” speech, which has been discussed on this website at great length and can sustain hundreds of thousands of words of further discourse. (Check back here in September 2020, when we devote a theme week to the scene’s 30th anniversary.)

There’s Pesci’s old musical-comedy pal Frank Vincent, barking “Now go home and get your fuckin’ shinebox!” and soon dying horribly at his old musical-comedy pal’s hands (and feet). There’s your fellow future Sopranos pal Michael Imperioli as poor, doomed Spider, shot by Tommy in the foot and then several times in the chest following a barroom disagreement. Everyone in this movie, from De Niro to Ray Liotta on down, is terrified of Tommy, their livelihoods and their very lives at the mercy of that constant grating and mesmerizing yap-yap-yapping.

The actor-director bond was by now so ironclad and familial that Scorsese’s own mother played Pesci’s mother. (I just love Tommy’s assessment of his dear mom’s painting talent: “I like this one. One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way.”) It’s career-making performances all the way around, so you can hardly blame the principals for more or less remaking it, five years later, with Casino, which moved the action from NYC to Vegas and cranked up Pesci’s ugliness (the pen, the vice grip, the cruel pings of the metal bats in his final scene as Vincent gets revenge) to only slightly diminishing returns. As uncontrollable gangster Nicky Santoro, Pesci is peak Unreasonable Man from the jump, and as casino boss Sam Rothstein, De Niro’s Lawful Evil is no match for his old pal’s Chaotic Evil, and you oughta just enjoy it for the portions of the movie that are remotely enjoyable.

Casino is nauseating and nigh-unbearable by design, De Niro’s vicious later scenes opposite Sharon Stone a potential deal-breaker all on their own. But there is a brutal grace, especially, to the desert clash between Sam and Nicky, a lurid hyperstyle both verbal—“You motherfucker, you,” Pesci yaps, amid many, many other discouraging words—and visual. (The scene ends with Nicky hopping in his car and peeling out, leaving Sam to quite literally eat his dust.) It’s as pure and pyrotechnic as any scene Pesci and De Niro have ever done together, the Harried Guy and the Unreasonable Guy solidifying into Mount Rushmore colossi. Both these actors were legends by then, and could theoretically coast for decades, and one of them arguably did. But Pesci was already on the verge of wrapping it up.

The wacky legal comedy My Cousin Vinny, which somehow slots neatly between Goodfellas and Casino, is an uneasy rewatch now, the humor a little broad (one of Pesci’s earliest scenes is an excruciatingly long prison-sex joke), the filmmaking (with apologies to director Jonathan Lynn’s earlier work in Clue) not exactly Scorseseian. The whole setup—Pesci is a skronking outer-borough doofus with a law degree he has no idea how to use, defending his cousin’s murder case in small-town Alabama—is preposterous in a Peak ’90s sort of way. But his scenes with (the Oscar-winning!) Marisa Tomei as his skronking fiancé are sublimely bizarre and really very sweet, and you gotta dig the way he slowly masters the art of cross-examination, swapping out “no further questions” in favor of “I got no more use for this guy.” There is also an absurd subplot involving a series of confrontations with a local dope that culminates in the most charmingly inept fight scene of Pesci’s career, or really anyone’s career outside of Dolemite’s.

8 Heads in a Duffel Bag aside, Pesci chose his projects with uncommon discretion for someone of his (professional) stature. He is certainly going for it in 1991’s Oliver Stone monolith JFK: “It’s a mystery wrapped up in a riddle inside an enigma!” he yaps, his wig encroaching into his eyes. That same year he delivered the lovable lightweight comedy The Super, which features a ludicrous street-basketball dunk to rival Edward Norton’s. Pesci was especially busy back then: Goodfellas was joined in 1990 by, yes, Home Alone, which, whatever else you feel about it, climaxes with one of the 20th century’s more sustained and aerobic stretches of bone-crushing physical comedy. The theoretically family-friendly franchise required Pesci not to swear, which is like tying one of his legs behind his back, but he still managed to remind everyone who they were dealing with.

The Lethal Weapon series—Pesci joined up for 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2, with two more sequels in ’92 and ’98—was likewise a blessedly genial box office juggernaut, his chemistry with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover nicely encapsulated by Lethal Weapon 3’s poster. Who else could turn “OK OK OK OK” into a perfectly viable catch phrase? Who else could turn the fact that he’s not holding a gun into a perfectly viable action-comedy premise? Who else were they gonna get to explain money-laundering to these guys?

And then, after 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Pesci was gone. His early retirement did not exactly take fans by surprise: “I would have done something else in life,” he conceded to The New York Times in 1992 on the set of My Cousin Vinny, lamenting that his parents pushed him into acting at all. “Something more calming, in a different area where I did not have to use my emotions.” Like what? Singing, maybe? Were you aware that on Friday, he’ll release an album called Pesci...Still Singing, which features a duet with Adam Levine? Were you aware that this will be his fourth album, and that Pesci’s second album, named after his My Cousin Vinny character, was released in 1998 and called Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You? Yeah, just for you, pal. Is that funny to you? Is he like a clown?

Save for a cameo in De Niro’s 2006’s The Good Shepherd and a turn opposite Helen Mirren in 2010’s Love Ranch (and who can blame either of them), Pesci has not appeared much on screen this century, which alone would make The Irishman an event even without the several hundred other factors that make it an event. What is most striking, for devoted Pesciologists, is that now, as a regal septuagenarian, he has finally graduated to the Reasonable Man role in the Scorsese triad. Now he’s the one imploring the (quietly) harried De Niro (playing Frank Sheeran, who paints houses) to talk some sense into the (very loudly) unreasonable Pacino (playing Jimmy Hoffa, which chews them up).

Even the gratuitous violence in The Irishman is not stunt-heavy, in accordance with the ages and dispositions of the principals involved, but what brings Russell Bufalino to life is the deadly stillness and eerie grace Pesci brings to him: “You’d never know it by looking at this guy,” Frank notes early on, “But all roads led back to Russ.” No, actually, you’d definitely know it by looking at him. It is Russell who delivers, to Frank, the movie’s ultimate piece of Bad News, amid a 210-minute bacchanal of Bad News, and we get to watch Joe Pesci make a salad as he delivers it, and soon Robert De Niro is back on the phone, no longer speechless but 10 times as flustered. It is all spectacularly enchanting for something so slow-moving and deliberately difficult to watch.

This isn’t that phone call, but given that it features De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino all airbrushed (or whatever) in a bid to look decades younger, it’s plenty disturbing, and enchanting, in its own right. Pay your respects, then, to the sad, ornery, unrepentantly vicious old men roaming the Uncanny Valley, forever as memorable for the terrible things they say to each other as for the vulnerable things they can’t bring themselves to say to each other. The Irishman is awfully lively, in its way, for something so funereal, and there’s your old pal Joe in the thick of it, just in a different part of the thick of it. He may have once, mid-backswing, forgotten who he really was. But anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of seeing him on screen never has.