THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK
I confess that while I have heard of the HBO series The Sopranos, I have not seen a single complete episode. I know bits and pieces as well as seen clips from the show about the life of our therapist-seeing mafioso. However, I know little to nothing about the myriad of characters and storylines The Sopranos spanned over its run.
The Many Saints of Newark, which should serve as the beginning of Tony Soprano's rise, is clearly for the made men (and women) who know every inch of the Bada Bing! Club. For those of us on the outside, it is nearly incomprehensible.
Told in voiceover Spoon River Anthology-like by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), we learn about his father, Richard "Dickie" Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Dickie endures his father "Hollywood" Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) and his luscious new Italian bride Guissepina (Michela De Rossi). Dickie, a local mafioso, enforces the will of the family along with his associate Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) and other figures.
They use black muscle to enforce their will, until the racial tensions in Newark explode. Former Moltisanti enforcer Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.) discovers his own black life matters and joins in the rioting. Fortunately for Dickie, the riots provide an excuse to blame his father's death on, even if it was purely accidental on his part.
Some time later, Dickie has taken Guissepina as his mistress and must confront Harold, all while serving as de facto role model for the young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini). Assisting Dickie from prison is his uncle Sally (Liotta in a dual role of twin). As Dickie has to deal with various issues and both his families, not everyone comes out alive, including Dickie. Slowly but steadily, Tony Soprano must find his place in this world.
I think that people unfamiliar with The Sopranos or who, like me, have some information but did not watch the show will find The Many Saints of Newark both puzzling and frustrating. I can speak only for myself, but when I went into The Many Saints of Newark, I thought I was going to watch the rise of Tony Soprano.
I didn't think I would end up watching the rise and fall of Dickie Montisanti.
Screenwriters Lawrence Konner and David Chase (the former who has written for The Sopranos, the latter who created it) decided to go all Phantom Menace/Solo: A Star Wars Story when it came to their iconic character. We saw how Uncle Junior Soprano (Cory Stoll) got his back issues. We got baby Christopher Moltisanti trying to steer clear of the teenage Tony, forever pushing him away. We saw Pussy Bonpensiore (Samson Moeakiola) before he became Big.
Those are, I figure, nice and maybe even amusing touches for Sopranos fans (though even if I were well-versed in Sopranos lore I would find the "baby Christopher senses something bad from Tony" bit a bit too on-the-nose). However, The Many Saints of Newark essentially operates on the idea that the viewer already knows all these characters and situations. As such, it shuts the door on non/casual Sopranos watchers faster than Michael Corleone does to Kay.
At one point I noted "I don't know what's going on" because all these figures are mysteries to me. Worse, for a film that is a Sopranos prequel, the figure of Tony Soprano himself is pretty much absent in The Many Saints of Newark. He's a shadow, a mystery figure that slips in and out. The only thing I actually learned about Tony Soprano is that as a teen he was into hard rock.
Since Tony Soprano barely played a part in The Many Saints of Newark, what you end up with is The Dickie Moltisanti Story, and he isn't all that interesting to focus so much attention on. This is not the fault of the actors, who did as well as they could with what they had.
I thought well of Nivola as Dickie, hot-headed enough to kill his mistress by drowning her in the ocean but tortured enough to attack a stolen television set at his father's funeral. Even though his scenes were sadly few, Bernthal was appropriately loutish and boorish as Johnny Soprano (a racist jailbird, as his wife described him at his "welcome home" party).
Speaking of Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga), it's a shame that she was reduced to this whiny, neurotic slightly cranky figure. I find it hard to imagine that a woman who had tranquilizers recommended to her would end up putting out a hit on her own son.
At least I think Livia did. Again, not having deep knowledge of The Sopranos my memory may be faulty here, but The Many Saints of Newark wasn't about to bother trying to set things up for me. It assumed I already knew everything about our favorite next-door mobsters.
There is a surprisingly somber, sluggish tone to The Many Saints of Newark that drag it down further. There is simply no joy here, and frankly too much fan-service to recommend the film if you are not a Sopranos fan.