Sympathy for the Doddering

In its third act, The Irishman almost redeems itself. The film is at its most effective when it uses the indignities and infirmities of old age to highlight the purgatory that awaits all of us, anyone who lives long enough to see their minds and bodies fail them. At times, the older version of Sheeran trails off into incoherence, as if he can barely string a sentence together while recounting his glory days in the mob. His middle-aged exploits don’t come across as impressive, partly because he never truly does feel like he has enough physical vitality to be middle-aged. We can see the old man who lurks uncomfortably under his face at all times, and his character isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, anyway. He’s just a soldier in the mob who goes along to get along. What that amounts to in the end is a pathetic figure.

The aforementioned Quentin Tarantino once used the word “geriatric” to describe Scorsese’s latter-day films. In his typical Tarantino bluster, he’s used that word elsewhere, talking about how he didn’t want to make “geriatric old colostomy bag movies” but rather “hard-dick movies.” In The Irishman, Scorsese goes full geriatric, deliberately undermining his familiar mob tale with visions of elderly life to highlight the weakness and inborn corruption of the human condition (yet again. It’s his favorite subject.)

I feel like this whole rant has some ageist overtones to it, but I do believe in respecting one’s elders, even when those elders are known for their irreverent treatment of religious icons (The Last Temptation of Christ) and their unrestrained punk-rock provocations via debaucherous black comedies (The Wolf of Wall Street). The Irishman winds down into slow-motion and asks the viewer to adjust to the rhythms of a senior’s pace of life. Fair enough, but the film feels self-reflexive when it shows us doomed men digging their own graves. It invites brutal honesty when it has a priest lead us in prayer with the words, “Help us see ourselves as you see us.” Bread dipped in grape juice invokes the Last Supper, and along the way, the movie displays text with the ignominious fate of certain characters. The artist wants us to pick up on his signals. Hopefully, that’s a two-way street.

With his repeated needle-dropping of “Gimme Shelter” (in Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed), Scorsese is no stranger to soundtrack tunes by the Rolling Stones. He has a tendency to skew stories toward the perspective of robbers overs cops—most noticeably in The Wolf of Wall Street, which relegated Kyle Chandler’s F.B.I. agent to a 30-second subway scene of his own, while the titular big bad wolf flourished all around him for the other 179 minutes of the movie. You can tell Scorsese has sympathy for the devil, as the Stones song goes, but what happens when devils turn doddering? Is there a movie to be made out of that story? Might that movie be justly described as Casino 2: Sympathy for the Doddering? The answer is yes … but, again, maybe it would have turned out better if it had kept its old men grounded in the present and let younger actors play their past selves.

In summary, The Irishman is a CG misfire that is too deeply entrenched in Scorsese’s greatest hits to offer a fresh permutation of the colors on his house-painting palette. It’s wall-to-wall white granddads and it gets caught up in the myopia of that perspective, which we’ve already seen overrepresented on Oscar ballots since before you can say Green Book. It never gets out of the shadow of historical fantasy and it’s too long by half. Watching it, I was reminded of the music video for Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” That video did more in three and a half minutes than The Irishman manages to do in three and a half hours.

Hoffa Who?

There’s a scene in The Irishman when Sheeran’s nurse sees an old photo of him with Jimmy Hoffa and doesn’t know who Hoffa is. My final takeaway was that this is the film’s single most important scene. The day before I saw the film, I had a similar experience in real life. I was talking to a 23-year-old co-worker of mine who is fresh out of college and hails from Ohio, and when I mentioned the names Scorsese and De Niro, she gave an unimpressed shrug, not knowing who they were.

That really burst my movie-loving bubble and put things in perspective for me as a citizen of Earth (which extends beyond the reach of Hollywood and Film Twitter, as it turns out). It made me realize that for all the accolades heaped on him, Scorsese hasn’t ever quite achieved the level of household-name recognition that his more populist filmmaking contemporary, Steven Spielberg, has. As cinephiles, many of us hold him in high regard … but not everyone on this planet is a cinephile.

The “Hoffa who?” scene highlights the fleeting nature of things we tell ourselves are important, be they our allegiances to Teamsters and mobsters or our allegiances to brand-name filmmakers. On some level, perhaps, it’s Scorsese recognizing that his films have forked no lightning in the grand cosmological scheme of things. For now, at least, he can rest on his laurels as the greatest director of his generation, but that generation is fast-approaching its curtain call. He and his fellow movie brats thrived in the 1970s, but now they’re in their 70s, age-wise.

Scorsese is the rare auteur who has been able to stay at the top of his game, even while playing the young man’s game of moviemaking. The Irishman shows that even a modern master like him is destined to come up against his own limitations somewhere. Age is a natural limitation imposed by our bodies; perspective is another limitation that can be expanded on but that often circles back and peers through the same crusty lens filter without knowing it. Scorsese’s last film, Silence, may have adhered to the same loose thematic template (woe, the plight of the fallen man), but at least it switched up the plot and setting so that it didn’t just feel like it was hitting the same beats with the same stable of actors. It was refreshing to see him venture outside his usual box into a film with some new leads and Japanese actors. The Irishman sees him retreating back to the box.

I’m not going to re-litigate the whole Scorsese vs. Marvel debate here, but I will say that I read his New York Times op-ed immediately after I got out of my screening of The Irishman, and it made for an interesting afterword, or epilogue, to the movie. The essay strikes the note of a filmmaker who has already lost his big-screen paradise and entered the streaming purgatory of Netflix. It made me think both the movie and the man are grappling with obsolescence, like we saw Tarantino doing this summer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The old guard is waving goodbye. Give it a few hundred years, and the name Scorsese might mean even less than it or Hoffa do to some people now. That’s the fate of all living names, The Irishman reminds us. The grass withers, films fade. Terrence Malick — another religious filmmaker and contemporary of Scorsese’s — foresaw this, too, when he opened The Tree of Life with a verse from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The Irishman answers that question, conclusively, by saying: I was living life in the fast lane with my buddies. We were the bad guys, but “we always called each other goodfellas.” Until some of us died and my blood thinned and life slowed down and I wound up old and alone in a nursing home.

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