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Review: ‘The Irishman’ is an epic ode to life and death

Even with a truly staggering running time, Scorsese’s epic is fast and funny, often coasting off the joy of watching its all-star ensemble go to work. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” is part gangster drama, part historical epic decades in the making, but it’s all a bleak, pitch-black comedy about waiting a lifetime to purchase your own coffin.

If this seems like a reduction of a complex, monumental work from one of our greatest living filmmakers, it probably is. But the scene, which happens late in the film’s distinctive and devastating final hour, is arguably the key to the whole thing. Having seen most of his colleagues and enemies pass on in one way or another, former mob operative Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), now confined to a wheelchair, looks through his various options for his future home in the earth.

Different colors, different prices – it’s all worth considering now that he’s got nothing but time. It’s funny, particularly with Action Bronson playing the casket salesman, but it’s also a grim moment at the end of a film concerned with mortality in all its forms.

Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Irishman” runs three hours and 29 minutes in length, so there’s obviously a whole lot of ground to cover to get to this point. The story is told with a non-linear structure that makes little sense at first, only for Scorsese to later reveal the ultimate endgame as the film creeps toward its prolonged climax.

With the exception of a brief World War II flashback, we’re introduced to Sheeran as a blue-collar worker – a nobody who ends up selling cuts of meat to the local mob to make a little extra dough. When Frank is caught and thrust into the battle between labor and business, he’s successfully defended by Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). Bill’s cousin, Russell (Joe Pesci), happens to be a prominent mob boss who had a chance encounter with Frank at a service station a few weeks before. Frank and Russell become fast friends, and the former begins taking on additional, more violent tasks for his new friend.

Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Frank’s small-time criminal enterprise is thrust into the spotlight when he’s introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the famous Teamsters boss who has a friendly association with the mob. Frank becomes closely aligned to Hoffa and his interests, doing his part in a war against the establishment forces that are trying to keep labor tied down in the country. Frank becomes a part of something bigger than himself, but when Hoffa gets out of control, his role in taking down an icon will forever alter the course of history.

“The Irishman” has been touted by many as a quieter, more reflective gangster film from Scorsese, and in its final hour it certainly becomes that kind of story. But you can still expect some of the trademarks of the filmmaker’s iconic style: fourth-wall breaks; voiceover from De Niro; witty and sardonic storytelling with some violent digressions; and so much plot that the film demands a second viewing just to catch everything.

Even with a truly staggering running time, Scorsese’s epic is fast and funny, often coasting off the joy of watching its all-star ensemble go to work. Long scenes flow brilliantly, and even the much-discussed visual effects work is fairly solid – though it is pretty funny to watch “45-year-old” Robert De Niro beat up another guy with all the vigor of a septuagenarian.

Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

However, considering that I was prepared for the anti-“Goodfellas,” I was initially annoyed by some of the flashier narrative devices. One in particular is worth noting: when any new minor character arrives, a small stamp appears on the screen, immediately noting how and when they die. At first, I thought it was far too cute for the story at hand.

Eventually, it becomes clear: this is the story.

Death comes for them all, and with the exception of one low-level mobster who was beloved by all and lived a long, happy life, death nearly always occurs at random. “The Irishman” is a movie about the friendships forged on the road to death – friendships often shaped by death and destroyed by that very same occurrence. The friendship between De Niro’s Sheeran and Pacino’s Hoffa is the heart of the movie in many ways (both actors are phenomenal here, as is Joe Pesci), and it’s all the more nauseating because you know exactly where this ends: with a betrayal and a bullet.

But in some ways, the randomness is a gift. Sheeran is doomed to watch his friends and his legacy fade into irrelevance as time passes on. With no friends, no options, and nothing but time, all he can do is buy his coffin, pick his burial spot, and wait for the release of death that should have come a long time ago. That is the tragic heart of what “The Irishman” is all about.

It’s a grim and grimly funny storythere’s no question about it. But am I eager to watch it again, in all three-and-a-half hours of its incredible glory, as soon as possible? You bet I am.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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