REVIEW: De Niro, Pacino and Pesci pull off a sympathetic energy in The Irishman

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The Irishman is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Scorsese’s own gang of “Good Fellas” — Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.

“IT IS WHAT IT IS!”

That’s the mantra that fuels Martin Scorsese’s autumnal masterpiece:  “It is what it is.”  It’s tantamount to other homiles we encounter in movies of this type, particularly that unforgettable masterpiece of rhetoric — “Forgeddaabout it.”

Robert De Niro appears in the title role as Frank Sheeran, the lone Irishman adrift in the Italian underworld of the 1960s through the early 1980s. He’s fresh from the killing machine that he was in World War II (we see him executing and burying bodies of the enemy) and all-too-ready to accept his new role as a soldier in the gangster fiefdom of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). From there it’s a step to whacking targeted wise guys and then on to the right-hand man of Bufalino’s associate, labor boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Throughout the historic background of the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate and Hoffa’s mysterious mysterious disappearance, the killings continue, of course, except that here director Scorsese choreographs them in a distinct departure from the holocaust of blood in earlier films like Taxi Driver and GoodFellas (the film it remotely resembles). Here, Frank’s hits are quick, blunt and decidedly anticlimactic. Except for his final hit assignment, which I can’t go into right now: Suffice to say that when it comes, it is one of the most shocking moments in the entire three-and-a half hours.

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What exactly is the fabled “honor among thieves”? What, in this case, are the ties that bring together the intersecting orbits of Bufalino and Hoffa? Is it friendship, family, greed for wealth, thirst for power and privilege? We watch De Niro’s Irishman as we seek enlightenment. Instead, he’s mostly opaque, a cipher, reacting more than he’s acting to circumstances around him. When at the end he’s confronted by a priest demanding some sign of guilt and atonement, the best Frank can do is mumble uncertainly the words, “that’s water under the bridge.”

Translate that as:  “It is what it is!”

I agree with some critics that The Irishman is a cold film, an icepick through the heart of its characters and its story. Yet it’s compelling for all of that. And it reveals Scorsese as an artist who has pared down his fabled stylistic virtuosity to its bare essentials, including no-nonsense sound and camera and dialogue sequences that are brilliant exercises in elliptical exchanges and scatterings of telling innuendoes.  Nobody ever actually demands a murder, or targets a specific victim, or provides any details of the whackings that are to come. Everybody already knows what is meant. And it makes for some weirdly comic conversations that thinly disguise the mayhem beneath it all.

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In its extended elegy regarding those who survive Hoffa’s disappearance and alleged death (and The Irishman has its own take on Hoffa’s fate), Scorsese delivers some of the most pathetically sad valedictories in the genre. No one lives to have any fun or satisfaction in what they have wrought. They just, well, they just grow old . . . like the rest of us. That is the understatement of the year!  I found myself thinking back to another miserable demise of another family — Barry Levinson’s Avalon.  Here also was a proud family of immigrant roots cast up on the shore of failed American dreams. All they can look forward to is the frozen dinner on the tv tray.

But what we take away from it all ultimately is the satisfaction of seeing this “family” of Scorsese’s pros — De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel — working together in the kind of sympathetic energy that Scorsese alone can pull off. And that’s “WHAT IT IS!”

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