This year, Thanksgiving was bloodier, more contemplative, and far more filled with Joe Pesci than usual. Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic, The Irishman, hit Netflix over the holiday, bringing with it questions about runtimes, de-aging technology, legacy, and the undeniable power of time. After watching the movie, the Ringer staff tried to answer those questions.
1. What is your tweet-length review of The Irishman?
Katie Baker: OK greatest generation.
Andrew Gruttadaro: It’s what it is. (And what it is is cinema, and one of the best movies of the year.)
Justin Sayles: Scorsese pulled off some of his greatest casting flexes to give us his most contemplative gangster film.
al pacino saying ‘c*cksucker’ for 38 seconds straight pic.twitter.com/g9d7TQv4DE— lou (@christiansbale) November 27, 2019
Alyssa Bereznak: A very good, very long movie designed to torture pop culture junkies whose attention spans have been spoiled by the internet.
Miles Surrey: Five gabagools out of five.
Ben Lindbergh: The Irishman has too many characters for a tweet-length review.
Rob Harvilla: Netflix and Floating Mournfully on an Ice Floe.
2. What was the best moment of the film?
Angelo: You know who owns the Cadillac Linen Service?
Frank: Some Jews in the laundry business. That’s what they told me.
Angelo: They own a part of it. Somebody else got an interest in that. You know who?
Angelo: I do.
Angelo: No, I do. I own the other part. Not I know somebody who owns the other part.
Russell: [stares at Frank]
Sayles: Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino says a lot without saying much of anything at all. The scenes at the dinner to honor Sheeran jump to mind, as does the conversation the two men have at the diner. But the best part of the movie comes when, while making a hand-tossed salad, Bufalino tells Sheeran, “We did all we could for the man.” You know Hoffa’s fate—and Sheeran’s—is settled at that moment.
Bereznak: The extremely stressful logistics of picking up and dropping off Jimmy Hoffa, right before Frank kills him. I now know the stretch between the Machus Red Fox and 83 Caesar Road by heart.
Surrey: Every glance from Peggy Sheeran, who made it very clear she thinks her father is a scumbag. (Which, well, he is!)
Harvilla: The part when Hoffa calls a roomful of people “dumb motherfuckers” and then has to clarify, after Frank storms out, that he hadn’t noticed Frank was in the room (“That didn’t apply to you!”) was the hardest I’d laughed in a movie theater in maybe five years.
Baker: There was a scene when Frank Sheeran calls Jimmy Hoffa on the phone, and Hoffa gets kinda agitated—not at Frank per se but to him—and Frank grunts and frowns as Hoffa rants and raves and kind of lisps a tiny bit and keeps referring to “The Little Guy.” Something about the whole thing just reminded me of Mike and the Mad Dog? It was soothing.
Herman: I would buy a book of Jimmy Hoffa aphorisms. You charge with a gun; with a knife, you run! Never put fish in the car. And most importantly: If there’s one person you can’t trust in this life, it’s millionaires’ kids.
Gruttadaro: The last time Frank and Russ eat bread and wine. A stroke has turned Russ into a shell of himself and time has taken a toll on both of them, and after all the years of hustling, they’re just two prison inmates munching on a loaf of stale bread and sipping on grape juice. It’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking, a deeply moving reminder that eventually time claims everyone.
3. What was your least favorite part of the movie?
Surrey: Anytime someone called a de-aged Robert De Niro “kid” in the film’s earlier timelines. My suspension of disbelief can go only so far.
Gruttadaro: Even though this movie is three and a half hours long, I feel like they didn’t give the Vodka in Watermelon Guy enough scenes.
Sayles: The “Crazy” Joe Gallo stuff feels like a detour, but at least it connects to greater the Scorsese Cinematic Universe.
Lindbergh: A drawn-out ending that rivals The Return of the King’s, and a lack of screen time for Peggy—although I understand that both choices were ways of conveying the consequences of Frank’s actions.
Harvilla: The crucial but quite languid “please, somebody talk some sense into Hoffa” phase of this film lasted somewhere between two and six hours.
Herman: You will never catch me, a television critic, complaining about a mere four-hour runtime in this age of “13-hour movies.” Still, an intermission would have been nice.
Bereznak: The weird de-aging CGI technology they used on Robert De Niro was genuinely distracting and made it hard for me to understand how old he was supposed to be at various stages of his life.
Baker: This is now the second time (Silver Linings Playbook was the first) that Robert De Niro has played a Philadelphia old-timer in a movie without giving me the Fluffya accent I crave!!! I’m both mad and disappointed about this and am giving The Disapproving Yet Silent Daughter Stare about it really hard right now!!!
4. Who was the MVP of The Irishman?
Lindbergh: Pacino, even though he doesn’t show up for almost an hour.
Herman: Pacino! His general too-much-ness has lately calcified into parody (HOOAH!!!), but Jimmy Hoffa is both a perfect vessel for this quality and a chance to ground it in some true-to-life pathos. It’s as funny to watch this Hoffa rip his underlings—except Frank, never Frank—a new one as it is moving to see his speeches about solidarity, and later, refusal to let his life’s work go. He’s not the movie’s lead, but he is both its heart and its spine.
Surrey: Al Pacino. Give him an Oscar, and an actual ad campaign with Dunkin’ Donuts that isn’t from the critically acclaimed major motion picture Jack and Jill.
Sayles: Pacino chews up all the scenery and ice cream and makes the movie sing. It makes me wish Marty could’ve directed the godfather sooner.
Harvilla: Gotta be Pacino—it’s not always the case, in Scorsese movies especially, that the loudest voice necessarily wins, but he’s just a majestic, ridiculous tornado throughout, and he gets so much better as his outbursts get less necessary.
Bereznak: I could watch an entire Netflix spinoff series of Al Pacino as Hoffa eating ice cream sundaes.
Gruttadaro: Because I assume everyone will say the other guys, let me give a shout to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who filled this movie with shots that I want to frame and hang in my apartment:
Baker: Whoever did Bobby Cannavale’s aging makeup, first of all. Second of all, I’m obviously not the only person to say this but I’d really appreciate a Better Call Saul–style spinoff focused on Ray Romano’s Teamster lawyer character, and if that’s not possible, I at least want Ray Romano to be the Eric Bogosian of 2020 and show up in Billions AND Succession AND a Safdie brothers film.
5. Please provide an honest assessment of The Irishman’s highly publicized de-aging CGI technology.
Harvilla: I could not, with 100 percent accuracy, tell you exactly when it was deployed and when it wasn’t, which I figure is mostly a Good Sign and only slightly a Bad Sign. Regardless, I never believed any of these guys were young at any point, and never cared.
Herman: It’s nowhere near as distracting as whatever they did to De Niro’s poor eyeballs. What’s wrong with a plain ol’ colored contact?
Sayles: I barely noticed it while watching in the theater. De Niro’s kick of the grocer that embarrassed his daughter, however, was deeply disturbing. Also, it’s worth noting: I never knew how old any of these characters were supposed to be, and I never believed De Niro was like 35 or close to it, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie at all.
Surrey: It’s actually not as bad as the trailers made it seem! The only real issues are, again, when someone calls De Niro “kid,” or when he’s required to move like a 30-something mobster when his body screams, “I am actually 76 years old.” I’ll give it a B.
Lindbergh: It set off my uncanny-valley alarm at times—mostly because the young-looking characters still moved like 70-somethings—but it rarely distracted me and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie, which is pretty impressive. Prosthetically aged older De Niro actually looked less convincing than the CGI-de-aged younger De Niros.
Baker: Ultimately I was less haunted by De Niro’s waxen “youthful” CGI face and his bright blue White Walker eyes than I was by the juxtaposition of it with his IRL stiff ol’ bod. (It was like seeing someone with a shiny facelift but still a haggard neck.) When he curb-stomped the dude’s hand I got Izzy Mandelbaum vibes, and when he threw those murder guns into the river, it looked like he had the yips.
Bereznak: Look, De Niro has basically been famous since his early 20s. At least since Raging Bull. We kind of know what he’s looked like at almost every stage of his life. These high-tech de-aging powers may have worked better on a slightly less iconic actor, but in this case they made De Niro look unnaturally smooth and dewy, like a Real Housewife. And that was especially weird because he simultaneously maintained the same elderly Deniro body type every stage of his life. It was maybe the most disturbing use of CGI technology in a movie this year, after Cats.
Gruttadaro: We still have not nailed this one, guys.
6. Several publications have questioned the late Frank Sheeran’s claim that he killed Jimmy Hoffa. Does that matter?
Gruttadaro: Not at all—that Frank is possibly a liar inserting himself into history and leaving his real, certainly darker stories unmentioned only deepens the character’s sadness and the point of the movie.
Surrey: I don’t think the historical events are as important as Sheeran’s looking back on a life of crime and realizing how meaningless it all was. It’s doubly effective when you consider Scorsese is doing the same thing; this is the kind of film you make after you make Goodfellas.
Lindbergh: It matters, but it doesn’t affect my opinion of the movie. It’s a good story in the hands of a skilled storyteller.
Bereznak: I want to say that it doesn’t matter what’s true, that Scorsese’s unquestioning embrace of the story is just as harmless as Quentin Tarantino’s choosing to spare Sharon Tate’s life in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But the average Irishman viewer doesn’t inherently know the basics of this historical incident, and they sure as hell aren’t going to dedicate 45 minutes of auxiliary reading to square what in the movie was compelling storytelling and what was proven fact. It’s slightly irresponsible, given Scorsese’s commitment to historical accuracy in nearly every other facet of the film. That being said, the movie was far more focused on chronicling the pitiful legacy of a hitman than it was on which exact hitman killed Hoffa. I’m guessing the meditation on mortality is what will stay with viewers above anything else.
Sayles: A Jimmy Hoffa investigator also warned De Niro that Sheeran’s claim was bullshit. But I think this all misses the point: The Irishman is not a movie about who killed Jimmy Hoffa, or what role Sheeran played in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a movie about choice, consequence, and regret. Whether this story is accurate or simply historical fiction has no bearing on that.
Harvilla: It is sadder and more profound, somehow, if he is lying.
Herman: Scorsese was clearly drawn to Frank’s (possibly fictional) story because it touched on a set of themes he wanted to explore; whether or not events unfolded as Frank told them, the film’s ideas about ethical decay and the ultimate futility of a lifestyle its director has done more than anyone to glamorize still stand. Besides, all gangster movies are about mythology, anyway.
Baker: Since so much of the film was about the slow death march of time and the inevitable slip of relevance from one’s weakening (yipsy) grasp, I’m cool with The Irishman just leaning in hard on one elderly has-been’s Big Fish–style recollections. If other viewers are like me, they Wikipedia’d everything afterward anyway and learned that there are, uh, some alternative theories.
7. The movie also implies that the mob killed JFK … consider this a safe space to share all your JFK conspiracy theories.
Herman: Even the darkest conspiracy theories are a subconscious effort to avoid the bleakest truth of all: The world is chaotic, irrational, and without a larger system to absorb our culpability, leaving us with nothing but our own moral choices. Amirite, Frank?!
Harvilla: It is much scarier, somehow, if the mob is lying.
Lindbergh: Three words: Cigarette Smoking Man.
Baker: More and more people are saying that this goes all the way to the bottom, and I don’t mean the swamps in East Rutherford, because we had a beautiful time watching Little Jimmy Dolan’s Knicks, didn’t we, folks?
Sayles: The only Kennedy conspiracy theory that ever made sense to me was the one that said a Secret Service agent accidentally fired his AR15 at the president after hearing Lee Harvey Oswald’s initial shots. Before his death in 2011, the agent in question, George Hickey, filed a libel suit against the publisher of a book that detailed the theory, but once you explore the facts, it’s too logical to discredit.
Surrey: I have a hard time believing the mob did it when it feels like half of the movie’s mob hits were a game of telephone gone horribly wrong.
8. Where does The Irishman rank in Martin Scorsese’s filmography?
Gruttadaro: You can’t make me do this—but honestly? Get back to me when I’m 85 and I might say The Irishman is Scorsese’s best.
Sayles: I’m not sure, but Jimmy Hoffa is a better superhero than Iron Man.
Lindbergh: It’s not the best Scorsese movie, but it’s the one most enhanced by a familiarity with other Scorsese movies. If you have upwards of three hours to spend on a Scorsese-approved De Niro–Pesci mob movie, though, watch Once Upon a Time in America first. It’s too bad there weren’t any streaming services around to release the full-length Leone cut in 1984.
Herman: Why would I pit Marty’s films against each other when they form such a cohesive arc? Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and this aren’t discrete works—they’re part of a continuum.
Surrey: It’s not in the god tier (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver), but The Irishman definitely falls in the second tier, which I’ll call “still significantly better than most filmmakers could ever hope to achieve.” Please note that all of the Scorsese movie tiers are ahead of every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Harvilla: The fact I already have a powerful urge to rewatch a 210-minute movie is an excellent sign; right now let’s say “right above Casino” is the floor and “right below Goodfellas” is the (lofty, but still in play) ceiling.
1. THE LAST WALTZ
9. How do you currently feel about getting older?
Gruttadaro: Just leave the door open a bit for me, OK?
Bereznak: I completely dread it. I can’t help but imagine myself in adult diapers, ranting to my 21-year-old old folks home attendant about the origins of the Milkshake Duck, or some other ancient meme that no one cares about in the year 2060. But at least I won’t have to come to terms with the fact that I murdered my close, personal friend who also happened to be a national union icon.
Baker: [Sits back in my leather wheelchair in a Catholic convalescent home post-bocce; clears parched throat with the help of a Dixie cup of water proffered by a hot priest; rambles for a while about how two of Scorsese’s mobsters in The Irishman—Harvey Keitel; Joe Pesci—once informed the majority of my understanding of criminality due to playing Whoopi Goldberg’s mobster boyfriend in Sister Act and Macaulay Culkin’s bumbling tormentor in Home Alone, respectively; recites from memory the The AV Club’s Nickelodeon Super Toy Run retrospective, glossing over the minor detail that it wasn’t me who competed.]
Lindbergh: Getting older doesn’t seem so bad. I’m more worried about what happens when we stop getting older.
Herman: I’ve been to Jewish nursing homes and they seem nicer than Catholic ones?
Sayles: In my early 30s, I left my hometown to start over on the opposite coast. I was worried about inertia—celebrating birthday after birthday on the same bar stool without having accomplished much. At the time, age was a great motivating factor; it was chasing me, mocking me for attempting to stay young.
Today, I feel more comfortable getting older. Sure, I’ve accomplished a few things in the intervening years, but this doesn’t feel like it’s about what I have or haven’t done. It’s about growing into who I am, something that gets easier with every passing day. I’ll always have a certain amount of regret—I could’ve moved sooner, or I could’ve been kinder to that person, or a hundred other things—but I can look myself in the mirror each day and know who I am even if the face looking back is a little more weathered than it was yesterday.
All of this is to say: It’s what it is.