A thumbnail history of the United States as interpreted by Martin Scorsese: rugged individualism (Raging Bull; Goodfellas); racism, religious intolerance, and cupidity in the 19th Century (Gangs of New York); the illusionary leadership of the moneyed class (The Age of Innocence); inner workings of the world of hustlers (Casino; The Wolf of Wall Street); the loner who resorts to violence (Taxi Driver; The King of Comedy; Cape Fear); the conflict between ethics and morality (Mean Streets); and, contents under pressure (The Departed).
Scorsese's latest, The Irishman, deserves its own chapter heading: bitter conspiracy nostalgia. However, it's not quite in the same class as most of the aforementioned films. Based on Charles Brandt's nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, it purports to tell the inside story of the 1970 disappearance of Teamsters union figure Jimmy Hoffa. As such, Scorsese's 60th directorial effort seems ideal for summarizing his gangster-heavy filmography.
But its three-and-a-half-hour portrait of mid-20th-century America — adapted from Brandt's book by screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) — has more on its mind than just the careers of actors Robert De Niro (as the title character, hit man Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (in his first role for Scorsese, as Hoffa), and Joe Pesci (mob boss Russell Bufalino). More religion, for instance, plus a sour, burnt-out pessimism, penetrating like a low-hanging fog into what appears at first to be a typical Scorsese criminology lesson.
Obvious complaint: the Brandt/Sheeran yarn does not solve the central mysteries. SPOILER ALERT: We never find out where Hoffa's ashes finally end up. And the eternal enigma, "Who Killed John F. Kennedy and Why," slips silently from the movie's grasp, as always. We're left with the colorful yet inconclusive confessions of De Niro's Sheeran, a South Philly meat truck driver willing to perform odd jobs for his mentor, Pesci's Bufalino, in connection with the combative Hoffa.
De Niro plays Sheeran with a wonderful working-stiff authenticity, a humble family man going about his bloody work unobtrusively. Sheeran's "don't know nuttin" act fails to convince his daughter Peggy (played as an eagle-eyed youngster by Lucy Gallina, as an adult by Anna Paquin). She understands what he's up to when no one else in the family will go there, and the disgust reflected on her face puts her at the moral center of the film. Pacino walks away with the acting prize for his Hoffa, labor agitator extraordinaire, who never stops making enemies. That leaves Pesci as the weakest link in Scorsese's senior-citizen trifecta. The film's much-publicized CGI reverse-aging effects are barely noticeable. De Niro (76), Pesci (76), and Pacino (79) are alter cockers and they look it, no matter what.
With the appearance of a Catholic priest trying to save the dying Sheeran's soul, Scorsese's religious connection re-emerges, as in Kundun, Silence, and of course The Last Temptation of Christ. The spiritual theme never really takes hold. The Great Lakes states are the ruling domain of this saga — the only time New York surfaces is in the Joe Gallo assassination scene, and frankly, we miss that. In concert with the nostalgia evoked by its three stars, the film's rear-view mirror finds no exhilaration whatsoever in its mayhem, only a gray, aching disappointment. Likewise, our high expectations for The Irishman never quite pan out.