The Many Saints Of Newark Spoiler Review: A Movie That Should Have Been A Miniseries

Part of the brilliance of "The Sopranos" is how many different ways the show deconstructed mobster nostalgia. It featured a massive cast that included a lot of real-world wise guys, sneakily appealing to everyone who ever appreciated "Goodfellas" or "The Godfather." Instead of glorifying the violent, paranoid lifestyle of the mob's biggest gangsters, however, "The Sopranos" showed us just how flawed and human they are. There's a surprising amount of mundanity in the mob life, and these guys are more pathetic than powerful. 

Series creator David Chase and director Alan Taylor attempted to capture that magic again for the prequel movie "The Many Saints of Newark." The movie tells the story of Dickie Moltisanti, a soldier in the Jersey crew and the father of Christopher (Michael Imperioli) from the original series. Dickie was more of a father to Tony Soprano, the main protagonist of "The Sopranos," played on the series by James Gandolfini and in the prequel movie by the late actor's son, Michael Gandolfini. 

While "The Many Saints of Newark" gives "Sopranos" fans some answers, it also sets up a lot of new questions that it never resolves. If the movie were a lasagna, the flavors are all there, but there's not enough of the ingredients to give it any substance. You'll get a taste of what you want, but you won't quite be satisfied. Let's dig through the layers to see why "The Many Saints of Newark" has great ideas that needed a little more sauce. 

Major spoilers ahead for "The Sopranos" and "The Many Saints of Newark." 

A Movie Made Up of Mini Moments

"The Many Saints of Newark" follows Dickie and his relationship with young Tony, who doesn't want any part of the gangster lifestyle. The movie starts when Tony is just a young kid and passes through time until he's in high school, trying to get into a good college. The passage of time is never really marked by anything other than the child actors changing or a few gray hairs added to older characters, making the hodgepodge of scenes feel even less connected. While watching "The Many Saints of Newark," I kept thinking of the 1999 Spike Lee movie "Summer of Sam." Where "Summer of Sam" uses a collection of moments to evoke the feeling of a single summer in the Bronx, "Many Saints" uses the same technique to try and evoke the feeling of an entire decade. 

What results is a mixed bag; sometimes the moments in "Many Saints" feel perfect, like the themes and ideas behind "The Sopranos" were distilled into just a few minutes. Moments of violence were always shocking on the series, and the movie carries on that torch with some absolutely brutal onscreen murders. We see Dickie kill his own father by smashing his head into a steering wheel early on, but nothing can prepare the audience for when Dickie drowns his mistress, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). Her body floats in the waves as Dickie nearly gets pulled under himself. It's a moment that feels as poignant and horrifying as Adriana (Drea de Matteo) imagining her escape on the way to being whacked in season 5. Women often pay the highest cost in this gangster-run world, despite having almost no power of their own. 

One woman who always maintained some power, especially over Tony, was his terror of a mother, Livia (played in the movie by Vera Farmiga). Some of the best parts of "Many Saints" are brief moments between Livia and Tony, where we see that there was genuine love between them at some point. Anyone who watched the series knows that Livia's love for her son doesn't exactly last, but the moments of sweetness between them explain why Tony tries so hard to help her later. 

Too Many Ideas, Not Enough Time

In addition to fleshing out the history behind Dickie and Tony, "The Many Saints of Newark" also paints a portrait of living in Newark during the upheaval of the 1960s and '70s. These are the times that members of the Sopranos' crew often referred to as the good old days when they grew old and fat and sat around Satriale's pork store, but it turns out the good old days weren't that great for everyone. Racial violence and the civil rights movement are given a face in Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), the rising leader of local Black gangsters who are nearly at war with the other Italian-American crime families. There are moments of poignant examination of the history of racism and xenophobia in America, perpetuated by those who had once been marginalized themselves. (This becomes a major theme in the series, where the older guys bemoan their treatment as Italian-Americans, despite the fact that they're openly racist towards just about everyone else.) 

The problem is that these moments are only moments, much like the bits of insight into Tony, Dickie, and Livia. "The Many Saints of Newark" has some interesting ideas about race, the American Dream, and how we all eventually get ground down by just trying to survive, but it never gets a chance to really explore those ideas. Every time the audience has a moment to think about the many questions "Many Saints" posits, the movie moves onto the next idea. If Chase and Taylor had taken the time to really interrogate its ideas as well as the series, he would have needed a miniseries. Maybe "Many Saints" would have been better off for it, with both time to breathe and more time to see old friends. 

A Prequel with Plenty of Potential

Another problem that plagues "The Many Saints of Newark" is that it constantly refers to "The Sopranos" in winks and nods, rarely with much of substance. There are some fun little in-jokes and easter eggs, but it doesn't add up to much. We also see glimpses of the crew in their earlier forms, played by a younger crew of actors. Even though the prosthetic makeup on Billy Magnussen is ridiculous, it would have been great to see more of young Paulie Walnuts. Honestly, it would have been fun to see more of all of them at all, and to explore how those relationships with Tony were formed. Instead, we only get brief moments that feel more like they're paying lip service to the original series rather than having any meaning. 

The only scene that has major implications for "The Sopranos" comes at the very end of "Many Saints," in which we discover that Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll) was the one that had Dickie killed, and for incredibly petty reasons. After Junior falls and is seriously injured, Dickie laughs at him, and that's enough for Junior to order the hit. Dickie's death is what causes Tony to go into the family business, which means that Junior is ultimately the reason for Tony's demise. It's a killer ending, but it's not quite enough to fully satisfy for fans of the series who have waited for nearly 15 years. 

It's a shame, really, because "The Many Saints of Newark" has tons of potential. When the movie taps into what the series did best by deconstructing mafia nostalgia, it works, but never for quite long enough. Chase has signed a big deal with HBO, so maybe he intends to expand on "Many Saints" in sequels to his prequel. If only he had made sure this lasagna was fully baked before moving onto dessert. 

"The Many Saints of Newark" is streaming on HBO Max and in theaters now.