You know The Irishman isn’t f**king around when Jesse Plemons shows up. This decade’s human embodiment of Seeking A Best Picture Nomination, when you see that chunky chin you know a filmmaker means business. Martin Scorsese may be in relatively relaxed, comfortable territory with his 209-minute old man hangout movie, but it’s a film with its eyes on the prize, a sentimental and legacy-obsessed final grasp for Oscar glory, not just for its iconic director but for three (arguably four) of the most iconic men ever to grace the screen. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino’s work of the past two decades has been, at best, patchy: for every Silver Linings Playbook and Manglehorn there’s a Dirty Grandpa and — in both of their cases — Righteous Kill.
But for a film about being old, in The Irishman the Heat/Godfather Part II duo have rarely felt more awake, alert and on the ball as they — aided by digital de-ageing effects — play their characters across several decades with a physical levity that, in Pacino’s case, is totally convincing. Even more surprisingly youthful is 76-year old Joe Pesci, lured out of retirement and occupying a gleeful amount of screentime throughout.
Considering it’s such a rare treat to see him acting at all, it’s all the more impressive that Pesci is probably in The Irishman for a longer time than most lead actors are in films of normal length. The fourth legend who pops up here is DeNiro’s Mean Streets co-star Harvey Keitel, who isn’t given much to do, but deservedly occupies his space in the hall of icons. Then, proving an impressively match for the powerhouse presence of these great Italians, is a younger generation of great Italian: the wonderful Ray Romano. As DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran and Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa hear the news of JFK’s death in a diner, the expression of horror and loss that strikes Romano’s face is staggering: it might be the most impressive bit of acting in the film.
Scorsese directs with his expected style but little urgency: the running time is so unnecessarily luxuriant and adds little: there are beats to Pacino’s performance that are pleasurable but not enough to justify 10–15 minute repetitive debates about the internal politics of the Teamsters Union. Steven Zaillian’s script doesn’t waste time, it constantly pops in slight ways, but Scorsese’s gaze absolutely does. You have to feel that The Safdie Brother’s Uncut Gems is probably the most thrilling ‘classic’ Scorsese movie we’ll see this year. As we saunter towards the backend of the film’s third year, Scorsese hits his sentimental button — maybe for the first time outside his 2011 experiment in family filmmaking Hugo — and commits fully to giving DeNiro’s Sheeran a worthy, morally complicated farewell. Maybe too “worthy” — it starts to feel like DeNiro’s Our Souls At Night more-so than his Old Man and the Gun. But it’s hard not to enjoy the end of a film that has kept you hostage for this long. Where The Irishman needs to work, as a Netflix release, is in its first hour, and with the DeNiro/Pesci dream team on screen within 10 minutes, it certainly does. If you can ignore the Welcome to Marwen vibe of De-aged mid-20s DeNiro, one of the greatest horror creations of 2019.