Premise: A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.
The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s examination of time, regret, and aging through the lens of the gangster epic. It’s a perfectly fine film whose biggest strength is in the powerful performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. Unfortunately, aside from those performances, the movie didn’t really hook me and ended up feeling like too dry and aimless a rumination on its themes.
The Irishman is a character study and, to that end, it delivered for me in its depiction of Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino gives a wonderful performance as Hoffa. Of the three leads, Pacino is the most boisterous in his performance and with good cause. The movie rests on the subdued performances of De Niro and Pesci, but it comes alive through Pacino’s Hoffa. Whether he’s mildly badgering Stephen Graham over being late to a meeting or just eating ice cream, Pacino’s Hoffa carries an air of power and self-importance. It’s the most compelling thing about the movie.
Adding to that characterization of Hoffa is the way we primarily see him through the eyes of De Niro’s Frank Sheeren. Frank’s respect for Hoffa gives the movie a unique in-road into the larger than life persona of Jimmy. Their relationship throughout the movie leads Frank to a character point that pins down the themes of the movie. The character moments that lead to the film’s resolution are solid and compelling.
However, by the movie’s end, the themes and messages imparted by Scorsese in The Irishman land a bit too on the nose and don’t quite payoff on the lengthy road of compelling characterization that the film takes us on. Scenes in which characters are having perfunctory conversations (of which there are many) are stylish in execution and a joy to watch, but there’s little outside of those scenes to really give them much context. Sure, there’s Hoffa’s rivalry with Stephen Graham’s “Tony Pro” that gives some dramatic weight to the movie. Unfortunately there’s not much else to supplement the movie’s drama in a compelling way.
The story of The Irishman spans many year and in order to do the timeline justice, Scorsese utilizes de-aging effects for the cast. As the movie progresses, the effect looks clean and becomes more and more impressive. It’s particularly strong toward the end of the film. However, the earliest scenes with the de-aging effect look off-putting and veer way into uncanny valley territory. At its most passable, these early scenes resemble a high quality cinematic from a PS4 or Xbox One video game. At its most distracting (a flashback scene showing Frank in the war, for example), it resembled the fantasy plastic dolls come to life sequences in last year’s Welcome to Marwen. Although it eventually gets better, those early scenes were enough to almost take me out of the movie.
The Irishman is a fine enough movie, overall. The story didn’t particularly grip me nor did it hit me as particularly profound. This is a much more muted and contemplative Scorsese gangster film than people may expect. The performances led by three iconic actors at home in a genre they helped define along with Scorsese is the movie’s saving grace. However, in the context of Scorsese’s history with the gangster genre, The Irishman leaves a bit more to be desired.