The Irishman (2019)

Despite it earning an ecstatic reception that wasn’t afforded to similar late-career, swing-for-the-fences experiments like Silence or Hugo, I struggled to get excited for Martin Scorsese’s latest picture. Somewhere between the film’s 3.5-hour runtime and my disappointment in seeing my ancient Unkie Marty fall back on his tried & true Gangster Epic template, I couldn’t help but meet the prospect of watching The Irishman with an exhausted shrug. I doubt I ever would have caught up with the film at all if it weren’t for its prominence in the current Oscars Discourse, as I’ve been outright bored by Scorsese’s most recent mobster-violence retreads The Departed & The Wolf of Wall Street in the past. Even as someone who’d count GoodFellas among his favorite films of all time, I struggle to see the need to return to this thematic territory yet again, especially from a filmmaker who has so many other kinds of stories to tell (and, sadly, so little time left to tell them). It turns out that I was both a little right and a little wrong in my skepticism. The Irishman finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.

Scorsese mascot Robert De Niro stars as a low-level mafia hitman who becomes the unlikely, trusted bodyguard of infamous union organizer Jimmy Hoffa – played by the explosively charismatic Al Pacino. Pacino remains a hoot throughout the picture, which almost forgives the endless hours that monotonously detail the behind-the-scenes corruption & violence on the union-mafia border. Classic Scorsese collaborators like Joe Pesci & Harvey Keitel are flanked by giddy-to-be-there “youngsters” like Ray Romano & Bobby Cannavale in a GooderFellers redux that serves mostly as a history lesson to a new generation about why Hoffa was important in his time and how his flagrant corruption forever altered public opinion on labor unions in America. Each cast member holds their own in this decades-spanning epic, despite a distracting, much-written-about “de-aging” effect that lands the film near the realm of the “theme park” superhero movies Scorsese has been having fun flippantly dismissing in the press. It’s just that they’re instructed to joylessly go through the motions of reliving Marty’s past Mean Streets/GoodFellas/Casino triumphs, deliberately stripping the onscreen power & violence of any potential misinterpreted cool. No matter how many times Scorsese’s past pictures have been willfully misinterpreted as dorm-poster posturing for Badass Antiheroes, they’ve always had that same grim, hyper-critical eye for this realm of hyperviolent bullies. Those movies were just never this dull or exhausting. Scorsese is essentially repenting here for the sin of being entertaining.

In theory, I appreciate the idea of Scorsese self-examining what a life spent submerged in all this violence is meant to accomplish. In its best moments, The Irishman is exactly that – featuring an ancient De Niro, retired from his Murderer for Hire days, unable to find meaning in the remaining scraps of his life. He self-justifies his “youthful” crimes as a soldier who was just following orders, one with a duty to “protect” his family by remaining well-employed. After three grueling hours of matter-of-fact violence & corruption, the movie finally finds him discovering just how empty all that dutiful brutality truly was. Faced with the idleness of obsoletion & an inability to mend familial bonds that were never really there to begin with (especially with a silently disgusted adult daughter played by an expertly icy Anna Paquin), he actually considers what he’s done with his life for the first time, and is haunted by what he finds. That’s the core of the movie! That’s new, fresh territory worth dwelling on & exploring at length in miserable sequences of domestic drama. Unfortunately, these scenes that get at what the movie is About are only a small blip in a grander picture, a flood of familiar faces & imagery from Scorsese’s past work. I could have fallen in love with The Irishman if it started with that final half-hour and really dug into the themes that distinguish it as a unique work in Scorsese’s catalog. As is, they’re treated more as dashes of seasoning rather than a proper meal.

Ultimately, The Irishman is Fine. It’s also easy to complain about and not entirely worth the effort, so in that sense I suppose it’s a perfect Oscar Movie. Part of me wishes that Scorsese had gotten all these accolades for something more demanding & daring like Silence instead, but I can’t begrudge one of our greatest living cinephiles getting recognized for his contributions to the artform – no matter the context. The only real hurdle here for most audiences is going to be its massive runtime, as everything else goes down relatively smooth (including the confounding “de-aging” tech, thanks to the growing ubiquity of CGI fuckery on the big screen). I’ve got my own personal reservations about the choice in subject matter & thematic emphasis, but no real fervor for shouting them at what appears to be an otherwise appreciative crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

Adult Beginners (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Not every film is greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: the cast for last year’s indie dramedy Adult Beginners is just oozing with talent, but the film itself if a little mushy & muddled in a way that can’t help but underwhelm. A Duplass Bros production starring Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Jane Krakowski, Jason Mantzoukas, and Bobby Cannavale sounds like a perfect formula for a lowkey drama with real emotional & comedic staying power, but Adult Beginners struggles to be much more than light entertainment with a promising premise & a failure to launch. The film is serviceably entertaining as decent Sunday afternoon romcom viewing fare, but I expected a little more out of it considering the level of talent involved. It’s an enjoyable film, but not a particularly efficient or memorable one.

Nick Kroll begins Adult Beginners as a cocaine-addicted sexual deviant with an endless appetite for greedy monetary gains, displays of power, and notoriety among his sycophant peers. In other words he’s a run of the mill NYC business man (in movie speak, at least). When his empire inevitably crumbles & he becomes a business world pariah, he has to move back home under the roof of his somewhat estranged sister (Byrne) & her increasingly emotionally distant husband (Cannavale). In order to pull his weight & learn humility, Kroll’s heartless business prick must care for the stressed couple’s hyperactive child Teddy,. He treats Teddy like a monstrous terror, but the truth is the kid is just a perfectly normal toddler. Not much changes once this comedic set up is established. The family learns to adjust & become comfortable with its unexpected shift in household dynamic & Kroll’s broken protagonist learns to become comfortable acting like a decent, empathetic human being. Throw in a third act crisis to shake things up a bit & a rapid resolution to that last minute monkey wrench and you have your basic outline of a typical romcom-style dramedy with an exceedingly charming cast.

Part of the reason why Adult Beginners is so frustrating is that it could’ve been so much more than that kind of charming, but ambitionless middle ground. I smelled trouble as soon as the opening scroll announced a “Story By” credit for three different writers (Kroll among them). At Adult Beginners‘s worst moments it feels like it was compiled from a Frankenscript of several half-cooked stories that didn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. Byrne’s stressed out mother has troubling alcohol addiction & workplace politics issues that threaten to complicate her livelihood & her pregnancy, but never amount to any clear kind of narrative conflict. Kroll’s business douche protagonist never really shows any personal growth or epiphany within the film other than growing increasingly comfortably with his role as a “manny” (man nanny). Cannavale’s gloomy husband admits his mistake in growing distant, but the couple’s reconciliation is never on public display. Worse yet, the film’s central/titular metaphor about an “adult beginners” swimming class is lazily introduced & referenced only briefly, never materializing into anything too significant or incisive. It’s tempting to think of these half-cooked ideas as intentionally understated narrative & character beats, but the film never really earns enough confidence to warrant that kind of patience & understanding. It’s a messy movie that only remains endearing through the sheer will of its talented cast. It’s not something I’d recommend as a greatly orchestrated, highly impactful small scale drama, but it’ll do as light viewing when you’re in need of this kind of cinematic comfort food. The letdown is that there are germs of two or three much better movies lurking just right under the surface of that mediocrity.

-Brandon Ledet