The Irishman is well-aware that Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious Teamsters Union president who achieved greater fame after his still-unsolved disappearance, is a faded figure. "Nowadays, the young kids don't know who Jimmy Hoffa was, maybe that he disappeared...", we hear our narrator/guide tell us in voiceover. The Irishman, while covering familiar territory for director Martin Scorsese, is also a film about the finality and fear of death, the regrets from the past and how everyone goes the way of all flesh.
Narrated by the title subject, we see Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) at a retirement home. He flashes back to a road trip for a wedding he took with his friend, mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), for a wedding and another visit that reveals itself. Stopping to let their wives have a cigarette break (Russell not permitting smoking in his car), Frank sees they are coincidentally at the same gas station & diner where they first met, sparking a new set of memories.
Frank, recently from World War II, made a little extra on the side running meat to gangsters. As a Teamster union member, he had protection and a good lawyer, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). Frank is surprised to re-encounter Bill's cousin, Russell, a quiet man who has his fingers in many pies. Frank soon starts becoming indispensable to Russell, and he in turn offers Frank as an aide to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
There again, Frank continuously tries to keep Hoffa from causing problems for the Mob. Hoffa, however, has his own problems. The Mob helped deliver the White House to President John F. Kennedy by essentially cheating in Illinois in exchange for a 'gentleman's agreement' to get JFK to kick Castro out of Cuba and let the Mob get their casinos back. The feeble efforts at that via the Bay of Pigs flops, and meanwhile Hoffa's enraged that Jack's kid brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy is targeting him.
The enmity runs deep between the Kennedys and Hoffa, with Hoffa finally locked up. Hoffa's Teamster President/puppet Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) is also the Mob's puppet, letting them dive into the Teamsters pension fund.
Hoffa sees the pension and the Teamsters as his, and once he secures a pardon from President Nixon he is determined to return to power. Sheeran is advised to tell Hoffa 'it is what it is', but this half-German, half-Irish boss is not going to let some Italians tell him what he can do. He is sure that his files offer him protection.
As we go back to the road trip, Frank Sheeran is placed in an impossible and tragic situation, one that will cost him the love of his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), who saw Hoffa as the only good man Frank worked with, and leaves the aging, regretful Frank to live on, knowing that perhaps absolution and people to mourn him is beyond his reach.
Martin Scorsese has been excoriated for saying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are 'not cinema'. For this blasphemy, he's been decried as a "stuffed shirt director" and "bitter and jealous" (presumably over the financial success of the MCU franchise). That take-down by the way is from someone who A) insists he's a conservative voice in film criticism (though by his own admission he's a fanboy) and B) blocked me on "the Twitter" for daring to disagree with him.
Frank Sheeran is a reminder of what De Niro can do after floundering in things like Little Fockers and Dirty Grandpa. His performance is truly excellent: someone who genuinely wants to 'protect' those he cares about but who ends up hurting them. Frank fears the finality of death, lives with the regrets, and simultaneously yearns for and hides from the end.
In terms of performances there is not one bad one in The Irishman. I don't think Pacino looks or sounds like Jimmy Hoffa, or what little I know of him, but he plays the Teamster boss as almost a lovable tyrant. He is the only person who could be petty enough to race back into the Teamsters headquarters to have the flag raised to full-staff after President Kennedy's assassination while also spoil Peggy with ice cream. In some ways The Irishman paints Hoffa as an idiot, unaware that "Fitz" gets around Hoffa's ban on alcohol by sneaking it in with drenched watermelons (which Hoffa also dislikes but permits). However, part of you genuinely feel sorrow at his quiet but still jarring end.
Pesci also surprises in how quiet his Russell is. The stereotype of Joe Pesci is of him constantly raving and screaming, but in The Irishman I don't remember him raising his voice once. It makes him more menacing in his methodical manner. A surprise too is Romano as the willfully blind lawyer. This is as far from the bumbling Ray Ramone as one can get. Romano does not play any 'gangster' type but his Bill Bufalino is no fool. Smaller performances by Paquin and Bobby Cannavale were also quite strong.
As a side note, Cannavale now has the rare distinction of having been in both a Scorsese and Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Wonder if he'll have any fallout for that.
In regards to the 'de-aging' of the three principles, at the very beginning seeing a young Robert De Niro is slightly jarring but soon it is forgotten. Credit should be given for not making the younger versions without it looking cartoonish or freakish in a Polar Express-type look. Previous Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is up to her brilliant standards, and Robbie Robertson's score has a darkness that works well with the story. Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Charles Brandt's nonfiction work I Heard You Paint Houses moves well, a rich and textured portrait of a dark world and the people that populate it.
The Irishman may lack talking trees and hunky extraterrestrials, but it makes up for those flaws with an involving, fast-paced story where old men look back not in anger but in sorrow. It may not be the final word on one of the most famous unsolved mysteries, but it wraps you in the story and grips you with its performances.
|James R. Hoffa|