As a movie lover, there are Martin Scorsese films that are on my all time list. The first two movie posters I ever framed and put in my office were Some Like it Hot and Taxi Driver. I routinely got into arguments with people at parties when I said Goodfellas was a better mob movie than The Godfather.
Yet I was so disappointed by The Departed, and the movies he’s released since. The Wolf of Wall Street was okay, but many scenes felt repetitive and it didn’t need to be two and a half hours long. His movie Silence a few years ago, was over two and a half hours long and ranks as one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. So I rolled my eyes when I heard this mob movie, where Scorsese got the band back together, was going to be 3 ½ hours long. And here’s how I would explain running times to Scorsese, since he obviously doesn’t get it. He’s obsessed with The Rolling Stones. If we could put him in a time machine back to 1964 and he’s in the studio with the Stones and they’re recording Out Of Our Heads…he’s listening to the tracks. He likes the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction so much, and convinces the band and producer, that it should be the entire second side of the album. The band feels good about the 3:42 run time of the song, but he convinces them that Keith’s riff is so great, people would love hearing it for 25 minutes on an entire side of the record. Now, is there anybody out there that thinks that would make it a more enjoyable song? And that’s the same thing with movies. If you’re going to make a movie 3 ½ hours long, I better be enjoying every second of it. I shouldn’t be looking at my watch. I shouldn’t leave the theatre wondering — why didn’t they develop the family dynamics better? Why were the female characters in this always just an annoyance to the men? The only male actor in this that had less to do than the actresses, was Jesse Plemons, who has a scene where he talks about a fish that was in the backseat of his car.
Another thing that bothered me about this movie is that it’s based on the Charles Brandt book I Heard You Paint Houses, which is nonfiction, yet when you’re seeing all this stuff about Jimmy Hoffa, you’re not sure what’s true and what isn’t.
The movie starts off with a clever long track shot through an old folks home. It’s a slight nod to the tracking shot of the mobsters going to the Copacabana through back doors, the kitchen, hallways, and to their table. It won’t be the only time you think of one of Scorsese’s previous pictures. There’s a fun scene in Florida where Hoffa has a meeting, and the folks are late. They arrive smoking cigars, wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts. This becomes their version of the “you think I’m funny” scene in Goodfellas.
Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, who drives a meat truck in South Philly. When his car breaks down, mob boss Russell Bufalino fixes it for him. When it turns out Russell is a cousin of Sheeran’s lawyer (the distracting Ray Romano), they end up becoming best buds.
De Niro does a great job with working-man characters (I loved his understated performance in A Bronx Tale). Yet once he starts doing odd jobs for Russell, which leads to him doing hits for him, both of their characters are a bit too passive. That’s fine when they’re playing older versions of themselves, but they were that way when they were younger. And for all the hype we’ve been hearing about the money and CGI spent to make them look younger, the way they carried themselves and moved made them appear a lot older, even when they were supposed to be in their 30s. All of that is funny on a few levels; in other mob movies, Pesci and De Niro had to wear make-up to make them look older late in the movie; also funny considering Scorsese has been complaining about Marvel movies, which is where this technology was perfected.
The family man side of Sheeran doesn’t work, as we spend hardly any time with his family. It’s mostly corny scenes at bowling alleys or Christmas, with his young daughter (Lucy Gallina) always noticing he’s up to no good (or feeling awkward when she sees him beat a grocer to within an inch of his life). When the daughter is older (Anna Paquin), she’s cut him out of her life, and you don’t feel as sad about it as intended.
Surprisingly, with as many mob characters as Al Pacino has played, he’s never been in a Scorsese flick. Perhaps because of that, Scorsese felt uncomfortable telling him to dial it back a bit. His overacting as Hoffa got a bit annoying.
The religious elements of the movie never really take hold. We see a few baptisms, and a few scenes with Sheeran talking to a priest near the end.
I loved all the old songs in the film. We got to hear Fats Domino (I Hear You Knockin’), The Five Satins doo-wop hit “In the Still of the Night,” as well Sleep Walk, Melancholy Serenade, and more. The score by Robbie Robertson was a bit disappointing (and I love his stuff with The Band). Oh, and it was brilliant casting having Little Steven Van Zandt play Jerry Vale. Not so sure about the casting of comedian Jim Norton (who has a brilliant comedic mind) to play Don Rickles.
Speaking of comedians, one of the best around is Sebastian Maniscalco. He surprised me with a touching performance in Green Book last year, and he has a great role in this.
A few others I liked in the film were Jake Hoffman (Dustin’s son), and Bobby Cannavale (every mob movie should have him).
One of my favorite things to do in period pieces, is to spot the various cars for the year the story is taking place. When it was 1957, I saw a cool Chevy. I also like to see the movie theatre marquees. It’s a fun way for directors to give a shout-out to films they loved (I saw one playing The Three Faces of Eve that same year, and another playing The Shootist in the mid-70s).
The ending of this movie didn’t pack the emotional punch it should have, mostly because we watched the story of a coldblooded killer. It’s hard to have sympathy for someone like that, who wasn’t even shown to be a good husband or father, just a guy who did whatever his boss told him to do.
But you know who will love this movie? The folks who call Goodfellas and Casino their all-time favorite films. This is a chance for them to see those actors playing mobsters again. And again, I’ll use the Rolling Stones for an analogy. If you see them today, it’s not a great concert; but you enjoy the experience. You’re with 20,000 other fans, maybe you brought a joint, spent $35 on a T-shirt, and can’t believe Jagger is in his ‘70s and can still run around stage. You’re hearing all the songs you know and love. Even if the songs sound too fast and Mick sounds out of breath. Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, and Mick Taylor aren’t with them anymore, but…damn if Keith doesn’t look badass with that cigarette dangling from his mouth (in this movie, that would be cigars dangling from mouths).
2 stars out of 5 for GeezerFellas.