Silent Daughters and Absent Truths

Let’s not drift too far away from The Irishman and its cast as they exist in cold reality. There are some very good performances in this film. No one will likely question its craftsmanship on that front. Pesci stands unimpeachable as Sheeran’s mob boss and occasional guardian angel, Russell Buffalino. The always-boisterous Al Pacino also injects some life into the film when he finally shows up on the other end of that fateful phone call as Hoffa.

Yet I can’t help but think of Anna Paquin. Like Quentin Tarantino, Scorsese has deflected questions this year about the role of women in his movies. In The Irishman, wives are easily discarded, per the Scorsese film norm, and daughters are rendered suspiciously dialogue-free. I don’t necessarily believe that every movie needs to pass the Bechdel test or be corrected for gender bias via machine learning, but Paquin is an Oscar-winning actress who starred in her own HBO series for six years. In this creaky film narrative, her main function is just to stare back at her father judgmentally. She’s underserved and barely has any lines. If you thought Margot Robbie was non-verbal in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, just wait till you see Anna Paquin in The Irishman.

To be fair, Sheeran does share a brief, emotional scene with one of his other daughters. That scene is memorable enough that you could make a case it cracks the movie’s hermetic patriarchal seal, without fully breaking its airtight hold. Is it disingenuous or all too relevant to mention that Scorsese, in one of his more out-of-touch artiste moments this millennium, once signed a petition demanding the “immediate release” of a convicted statutory rapist? Because everybody likes Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby! When you think of how vital actresses like Lorraine Bracco and Sharon Stone were to Scorsese’s past mob movies, it’s a mystery why he and screenwriter Steven Zaillian couldn’t find time in three and a half hours to throw a little more dialogue Paquin’s way.

Credibility is another issue that plagues The Irishman throughout its protracted running time. That it’s based on a discredited confession doesn’t automatically disqualify the film from telling a good story. I Heard You Paint Houses is the title of the book; the movie flashes that title on screen twice, in big letters, as if it wants to insist that this is its real title, too. In addition, Hoffa articulates the wannabe title in dialogue. His disappearance is one of the great unsolved mysteries in American history and there’s always room for artistic license with a mystery like that. Oliver Stone’s JFK is still a stunning piece of cinema, even if it functions as more of a shaky counter-myth to real 20th-century history. (David Ferrie, who Pesci played in JFK, makes a cameo here.)

Be that as it may, the dubious nature of Sheeran’s real-life confession saps some emotional truth from The Irishman. The movie plays it straight, as if what we’re witnessing is fact. Its unrepentant heart beats with a bromantic love triangle, yet there’s always the nagging feeling that this is just Sheeran’s self-serving insertion of himself into the narrative of Hoffa’s disappearance. Maybe that’s just the effect Scorsese was going for (another feature, not a bug?), but if so, there’s nothing on the surface of the movie to indicate that.

What is on the surface is a story that Slate has likened to “the Forrest Gump of organized crime.” Gump famously inserted its title character into archival footage, courtesy of visual effects, so that he could shake hands with dead presidents. The Irishman prefers to imply that the mob rigged Kennedy’s election, then assassinated him, and that Sheeran, in his amazing adventures, crossed paths with future Watergate burglars. It’s certainly possible those events happened in real life … truth is stranger than fiction, and all that.

At the same time, it’s equally possible that The Irishman pulls the old switcheroo and gives us, “Based on a false confession,” instead of, “Based on a true story.” In which case, it’s hard to feel anything beyond the old familiar bubble-burst feeling that sets in after the smartphones light up to fact-check these kinds of movies. You know the feeling I’m talking about: it’s the one that comes when you take a movie at face value and then start reading up on the real history behind it, only to realize that the movie distorted the truth in ways that seem vaguely unscrupulous. A recent example of this would be Bohemian Rhapsody. Never thought I’d live to make a comparison between that film and one of Scorsese’s, but there you go.

No Film But What We Remake

Since Disney owns everything now, let me hit you with a metaphor ripped straight from the animated world of DuckTales. The Irishman is Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of gold coins, the accumulated treasures of a filmography spent hammering home the same artistic point. At the heart of their work, most great artists have one driving impulse, an idea they keep returning to again and again. Scorsese is no different. Men are sinful yet redemption eludes them, he tells us.

So what else is new? The Irishman sees the aging auteur belaboring this point, repeating himself in a more overt fashion than he’s ever perhaps done before. Parts of it feel like a Goodfellas remake, just as parts of Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street did.

When a grocer shoves Sheeran’s daughter and he goes to confront the guy, we have a pretty good idea how the next scene is going to play out, because we’ve already seen an earlier iteration of this scene with Henry and Karen and Karen’s across-the-street neighbor in Goodfellas. The Irishman winks at us when it shows sides of beef hanging in the back of a freezer truck, as if to say, “See what I’m doing here? This, too, is a callback to Goodfellas.” Likewise, a tense scene in the driver’s seat of a car, where a paranoid woman stops short of turning the key in the ignition, plays upon our knowledge of and nostalgia for Casino, a vastly superior film.

In this way, The Irishman cinematically recalls TV mobster Tony Soprano’s perceptive notion that “remember when” is “the lowest form of conversation.” It’s surreal as all hell to see Scorsese reduced to that level of discourse with his audience. It’s unbecoming and meta, is what it is. You might argue that, in this instance, “remember when” is all too appropriate given the plot of The Irishman … but with so many other samey movies floating around out there in the cinematic landscape of the 2010s, did we really need one more, here at the end (and from Scorsese, of all people)?

In a weird way, watching The Irishman almost feels like seeing Scorsese show up late to a party in L.A. and start trying to dazzle the folks there with magic tricks that he’s pulled from the J.J. Abrams remix bag. I like Abrams but when I go to a Scorsese film, I don’t expect to see him following the same derivative playbook.

Hollywood, in general, now obeys the law of the Terminator franchise: no film but what we remake. Scorsese isn’t immune to that, it seems. Sheeran’s life in the nursing home recapitulates Henry Hill’s life in witness protection, which itself recapitulates Jake LaMotta’s post-boxing career in a Miami jail and the dressing room of a New York comedy club.

Be it the San Diego house where Ace Rothstein retires, or Jordan Belafort’s New Zealand sales seminar after his minimum security prison stint, Scorsese loves to show us men who are on top of the world — who seemingly have everything they could ever want — only to lose it and go into exile. The players and the setting may change, but the basic fall-from-grace arc his characters undergo remains the same. Instead of “Die Hard in a [new location],” Scorsese likes to do “Paradise Lost in a [new context].”

Billionaire recluse Howard Hughes stands in front of the mirror, obsessively-compulsively repeating the line, “The way of the future,” and he, too, is in exile. Even Rodriguez, the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield in Silence, follows this arc when he becomes an apostate, forced to sit and identify Christian objects at a Dutch trading post in Nagasaki. It’s as if Scorsese, the guilted Catholic and Hollywood royal, has been training his whole career for the day he forfeits his earthly paradise and enters some grey purgatory in some unknown afterlife.

Beyond the self-admitted cash grab nature of it, Scorsese’s contemporary and fellow mob-movie purveyor, Francis Ford Coppola, once said that he originally conceived of The Godfather, Part III as an epilogue akin to, “The Death of Michael Corleone.” The Irishman makes a similar bid for an addendum to past filmic achievements, and I’ll shoot you straight: young Sofia Coppola’s Valley Girl accent notwithstanding, The Godfather, Part III might actually come out looking better on this side of the table. Stick these words in the poster blurb: juxtaposed with the computer-generated floundering of The Irishman, The Godfather, Part III would easily have my vote for “best inferior mob threequel.”

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