Monday, January 13, 2020

The Big Guns: The Irishman, Marriage Story and 1917

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in The Irishman. (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

This article includes reviews of The Irishman, Marriage Story and 1917. 

The Irishman is the cinematic equivalent of a thick, expensive coffee-table book prominently displayed in Rizzoli’s for the Christmas trade. Martin Scorsese’s three-hour-and-twenty-nine-minute epic has as much prestige as one awards-season release can handle. Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of Schindler’s List, Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, creator/co-writer of the TV limited series The Night Of) wrote the adaptation of Charles Brandt’s bestseller I Heard You Paint Houses, a biography of Teamsters Union official Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a middleman for the Bufalino crime family who, shortly before his death, told Brandt that he’d murdered Jimmy Hoffa. (Sheeran’s claim has been disputed since the 2004 publication of Brandt’s book, by the journalist Bill Tonelli in Slate and by the Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith in The New York Review of Books.) Rodrigo Prieto, the terrific cinematographer associated with Alejandro Iñárritu and Scorsese’s collaborator on The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, shot it, in handsome dark tones befitting a classic. The star, Robert De Niro, shares the screen with both Al Pacino (as Hoffa) and De Niro’s Raging Bull co-star Joe Pesci (as Russell Bufalino, who pulls Sheeran’s strings). The list of the cast, which also includes Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin, is thirty-three computer screens long on

But for all that distinction, the film is stillborn. It’s the story of a man who, returning from heroic service in World War II, finds he can’t make a decent living until Bufalino discovers him and puts him to work as his family’s private assassin. And he goes on offing enemies (or merely inconveniences) for his mentor with apparently no moral qualms and certainly no hesitation, unless you count the brief pause he takes on the phone when Bufalino orders him to kill Frank’s friend Hoffa – the man responsible for putting him into union leadership – whose loose-cannon behavior has become a liability to Bufalino family business. Does his obligation to eliminate a close friend stir his conscience for the first time in his long career? Well, Frank’s daughter Peggy (Paquin) stops speaking to him after Hoffa, whom she has adored since childhood, disappears, and toward the end of Frank’s life (he died in 2003, a decade after serving thirteen years of a 32-year sentence for labor racketeering) he has a long, unrevealing confab with a priest. But the movie doesn’t provide any significant evidence that he regrets what he’s done, though it’s hard to tell, since De Niro barely moves a facial muscle in all of those hours of runtime. The praise De Niro has received for this picture is like a bad joke: this may be the most immobile performance ever given by a famous movie actor in a leading role. And if we don’t actually see the protagonist change, the movie has no forward movement – and thus no drama.

This isn’t the first time Scorsese has made a highly praised movie that commits the serious dramatic error of having a static main character. De Niro’s Jake LaMotta doesn’t change in Raging Bull and neither does Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas, and I’ve always thought that the cinematic pyrotechnics in both those pictures act as a smokescreen for the lack of drama. Though the received wisdom is that De Niro does some of his best work in Raging Bull, the only psychological information you ever get about LaMotta is that he acts the way he does because he’s a prick; neither the screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin nor De Niro’s full-fathoms-five acting offers a clue to what made him such a prick. I don’t want to shortchange his performance, which is a beautifully detailed piece of realist acting, but those details don’t lead us anywhere; compare to it what he reveals about his characters in earlier Scorsese movies like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York. (Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver are sociopaths and thus ultimately a mystery to us, yet you could write an essay on either of them.) I think that both Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are more interesting to watch than De Niro in Raging Bull because their characters are dynamic, and just because the joke premise of Goodfellas is that while all his pals wind up either in prison or in the morgue, Hill manages to stay out of both without changing at all, Lorraine Bracco as his credulous wife Karen, seduced by the high-low life, walks away with the movie.

Pesci walks away with The Irishman by giving a subtle, fleshed-in performance while everything around him registers like impressive period design fronting a void. It’s a wonderful surprise, because subtlety has never been one of Pesci’s qualities. Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is entertaining but it’s a stunt; I didn’t buy a second of it, though as the movie wound on and on and it was clear that De Niro had no intention of doing any actual acting I was grateful for the distraction. (Pacino is given much more to do than Pesci.) Three and a half hours is an awfully long time to watch an epic gangster story in which the protagonist is frozen in place.

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story.

At this best, in While We’re Young and especially in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), writer-director Noah Baumbach can remind me of Paul Mazursky. But while I was watching his new Marriage Story the Mazursky movie that came to mind was An Unmarried Woman, his well-intentioned but basically unconvincing 1978 portrait of a woman (Jill Clayburgh) who has to figure out who she is after her husband unceremoniously dumps her for someone else. An Unmarried Woman had a few good scenes but it mostly lacked the elements I’d loved in earlier Mazursky movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & AliceBlume in Love, Harry and Tonto and Next Stop, Greenwich Village: quirkiness, wit, unexpected narrative twists, an authentically democratic and humanistic – Chekhovian – approach to character development, and a vigorous refusal to make easy judgments. An Unmarried Woman unspooled like a late-seventies fable, and at the end, when the heroine turned down the sexy, great-looking abstract expressionist painter (Alan Bates!) who loved her and whom she loved, apparently to make a feminist point, the movie stopped making any sense to me. Marriage Story, which is about the dissolution of a marriage between Charlie (Adam Driver), a New York stage director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johannson), the leading actress in his experimental troupe, doesn’t showcase any of Baumbach’s talents either, chief among which has always been his humor. There’s some comedy in Marriage Story, but it’s peripheral to the central relationship; mostly it’s provided by Alan Alda and then Ray Liotta as the lawyers Charlie hires to represent him in the divorce, and though they’re both pretty funny they’re playing caricatures. Some attempt is made at humor in Wallace Shawn’s scenes as a self-aggrandizing, name-dropping actor in Charlie’s company, but he’s so miscast that they don’t work.

Baumbach wants to strip his movie down to the psychological essentials, i.e., what drives these two people apart and what struggles they go through on the way to recalibrating their lives – which involve a young son (Henry, played by Azhy Robertson) and are now going to be lived across the continent from one another, since Nicole has moved to L.A. to pursue a career in TV and movies. But though the film tells us that Charlie has been selfish and clueless and insufficiently attentive to Nicole’s desires and that she’s angry at him but has to fight the love she still feels for him, in the movie these come across as ideas that the two actors, both of whom are very good, can’t manage to propel off the page into drama. Baumbach’s model is clearly Ingmar Bergman’s 1974 Scenes from a Marriage with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, but it sure wouldn’t have been mine; the big, screaming argument scene between Driver and Johannson brought back my memories of the Bergman, which I thought was boiled-up (though certainly well-acted) psychodrama. If Baumbach wanted inspiration for a movie about the break-up of a marriage, he would have been better advised to look at Diane Keaton and Albert Finney in Alan Parker’s 1982 Shoot the Moon or Edie Falco and James Gandolfini in the “Whitecaps” episode of The Sopranos – or, for that matter, Ullmann and Max von Sydow in Bergman’s Shame.

Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of Shoot the Moon that anyone who had raised children would recognize the familial details in Parker’s film, but Baumbach really falls down on the details in Marriage Story, both the personal and the professional ones. He never manages to make a real character out of Henry, and I didn’t find the scenes built around Charlie’s show, an updated version of Electra, much more plausible than the ones in Birdman. It’s a critical off-Broadway hit that is transferring to Broadway, but from what we see of it, no producer would ever back its chances, especially when Nicole leaves the cast to move to the West Coast to shoot a pilot and Charlie doesn’t hire a name to replace her. (I assume the choice of Electra is another nod to Bergman, since that’s the play Liv Ullmann’s character is performing in Persona when she stops speaking altogether.)

I’m aware of the irony of comparing Marriage Story to An Unmarried Woman, considering that whereas Mazursky twists his movie into a pretzel trying to justify his heroine’s rejection of her four-star suitor, Baumbach weights the movie on Charlie’s side. That’s true from the opening scene, where the separation mediator (Robert Smigel) he and Nicole have been visiting asks each to write out a list of qualities describing the other and Nicole refuses to read hers aloud, finally getting so pissed at the counselor’s and Charlie’s efforts that she accuses them of sucking each other’s dicks and storms out of the office – while we scratch our heads. Though they’ve agreed not to hire lawyers, once Nicole gets to L.A. she changes her mind and takes on a ruthless attorney, Nora Fanshaw (played with effectiveness by Laura Dern), after first booking time with a dozen other highly rated divorce lawyers so that ethically each is obliged to turn Charlie down when he tries to enlist their services. It’s not that we can’t sympathize with Nicole’s issues with Charlie, but once they move toward divorce, Baumbach portrays him as a relative babe in the woods with the cards stacked immovably against him – he has to fly back and forth from New York, where Henry is living with Nicole, while he’s trying to get his play up, and Nora treats every delay as if it were an effort to stall the proceedings (when we can see that’s not the case) and threatens to get full custody of Henry for her client if he misses a deadline. Johannson does everything she can to warm up the character, but the movie simply doesn’t like her very much.

George MacKay in 1917.

As everyone knows by now, the director Sam Mendes, the cinematographer Roger Deakins and the editor Lee Smith have put 1917 together so that it looks like one continuous shot, and the achievement is extraordinary. Visually, in fact, everything about the movie is extraordinary, especially Deakins’s lighting and Dennis Gassner’s production design. The plot of the movie, which Mendes co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is that at the height of the First World War two young lance corporals, Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are sent by English high command into enemy territory to stop 1,600 troops from advancing on the Germans and falling into a trap. Time, of course, is of the essence, the dangers are extreme, and to add extra incentive to the mission Blake’s brother is among the imperiled troops. So the impression of one continuous shot is both a sensory impression of and a symbol for the young men’s experience. And it’s brilliant, but too brilliant. Watching it, I kept getting distracted by the technical accomplishment; the camerawork had, for me, at least, an inadvertently Brechtian effect on the presentation of the story. There was only one scene in which that didn’t happen, a long, staggering episode in a befogged nighttime churchyard where the filmmaking seems entirely in sync with the emotional content. It’s the best piece of direction and cinematography I saw all last year. It’s so powerful that even a rather soppy, heavy-handed exchange between Schofield and a young Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq) with a baby doesn’t mitigate its effect.

Mackay, whose Schofield is the film’s protagonist, is excellent. (I was less enthusiastic about Chapman, whom I didn’t like as Hal’s brother Thomas in The King either.) But the other problem with the movie is that it’s underpopulated. Some splendid actors show up as officers in the course of the young men’s travels – Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden as Blake’s older brother – and they’re all good (Scott is marvelous), but each has maybe three minutes of screen time. By the time we reach the at-risk troops we’re desperate for human interaction, and instead what we get is a sequence in which the men sing a folk song together. It’s not exactly Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, where Ichikawa uses music expressively to comment on both Japanese and English soldiers’ longing for home at the end of World War II; this scene feels rigged. And, with all due respect to Mendes, so does the movie.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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