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5th December
written by Mad Cow

Advisability rating: R for pervasive language and strong violence

Mad Cow’s Review Rating:

            Martin Scorsese is a genius and he’s still “got it,” whatever makes for a great director. The Irishman, based on the book I Hear You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt and screen play by Steven Zailliar, is brilliantly done, if too long. I streamed it via Netflix at home. At three and a half hours, we needed time for bathroom breaks, a little walk-around, and snacks. This is the longest film to be released to theaters in 20 years.

            The film tells the story of Frank Sheerin (Robert DeNero), hitman and lackey of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and later of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Most of the characters are based on real people. Never having heard the name, I looked up Bufalino and sure enough, he was a mob boss in real life. “Painting houses” is a quaint term for mob assassination while “carpentry work” is about cleaning up the messes involved. The story is told mostly by the very old Sheerin himself, having survived when many others were felled, while seated in a nursing home wheel chair in his bathrobe. He is talking to us. Not only that, occasionally a caption appears above a character’s head, indicating when and how he died, mostly where he was when he was shot in the head. For some weird reason, this device works, and makes one look more carefully at how Sheerin survived.

            The women in the movie, with the exception of his daughter Peggy, play stereotypical mobsters’ wives, and barely have speaking parts. Peggy, played as a child by Lucy Gallina and an adult by Anna Paquin, is a personification of Frank’s conscience. She figures out what’s going on and will accept none of it. She has few lines too but her stares say it all. She never changes in her condemnation. It’s a stretch to believe that as a young child she knew what was going on, so suspended disbelief needs an application here.

            Frank Sheerin is good at what he does but he is totally subservient to the people he works for. When he makes a mistake, he is sheepish in the face of confrontation. He manages to keep everyone happy most of the time because of his loyalty and a kind of ingenuousness. A consummate actor, DeNiro pulls this off very well and it’s compelling to watch him at this game, unusual for him. Joe Pesci is excellent as Russell Bufalino, the boss who took Sheerin under his wing. He’s smart, decisive, calculating, and as the ads say, “quiet.”

            I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention the digital “de-aging” Scorsese executed in the movie. DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci are all in their 70s. With digital manipulation, they appear younger sans the aid of make-up. Scorsese opines that in the future such techniques will cut down considerably on the need for make-up. We’ll see. I’ve admired the make-up/masks of Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes (The Loudest Voice) and Gary Oldman as Churchill (Darkest Hour), just to name a couple. Plus the actors were not provided with doubles, so their movements are not always those of men younger than themselves. But wait! What about women? Fat chance that any director will decide to use a digitally – enhanced older actress to portray her in her younger years. LOL

Pacino’s Hoffa is in its way as subtle a role as DeNiro’s Hoffa wields a lot of power and has power standards (always be on time, dress appropriately for meetings) that infuriate him when ignored, not to mention his taking them as personal insults. Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provinzano (Stephen Graham) particularly gets under his skin. Hoffa, of German/Irish descent, lets go with negative Italian slurs (Aren’t they all named Tony?) that don’t hang well with some of his associates. Eventually, he becomes someone who cannot give up his perceived power even as he has lost it. Dramatic bluff and bluster combined with shrewd decisions got him where he was, but he can’t see that it’s over. Pacino evokes our sympathy. Which of us hasn’t been in a position of distinction, no matter how small, only to be brought down somehow?

            Great care was taken to replicate the cars, streets, stores and highways in the film, to this viewer’s delight. Also the shots are spectacular. A shot from above showing the press scurrying after Hoffa in a courtroom lobby, like ants going after a crumb, is surprisingly fun. Likewise, the clothing, drinks, and language. But the heart of the movie is a slow-growing ambivalence about the killing and the violence. Sheerin is deeply affected by Peggy’s disapproval and comes to regret one very personal killing even as that one probably saved his own life. The crowning scene is with another adult daughter who asks him why he did all that he did. What he tells her is psychological food for thought.

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