Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Fairly Short and Hopefully Spoiler-Free Review: The Many Saints of Newark

I was never going to miss this film, but if I hadn't just bought the "all you can eat movies" plan from Regal Cinemas, I might have waited to stream it at home. Since I finally decided to pull the trigger on that plan, I also decided to bicycle down to my local theater and enjoy it in a reclining seat with snacks and about five other people scattered around the auditorium.

TL;DR: If you're a fan of The Sopranos, you probably have to see The Many Saints of Newark, and you're probably going to enjoy it. If you've never seen (or didn't like) The Sopranos, you're probably not going to really get what the big deal is and consider it, apart perhaps from Ray Liotta's strongest performance since Goodfellas, a mediocre gangster flick.

As evidence for the latter proposition, I offer you Eileen Jones's review at Jacobin. I think she under-rates Alessandro Nivola's turn as Dickie Moltisanti, but other than that she pretty much captures what it's probably like to be someone who's never seen the television show and gets dropped into the movie. I can't imagine anyone seeing the film first and then deciding "wow, I've really got to watch the show."

As it happens, I'm a fan of The Sopranos and I liked it. A lot.

What I liked about, a lot, it was not the story as such, which was just so-so, but (or lack of a better two words) the "character verisimilitude."

They're all there -- Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts, John Magaro as Silvio Dante, Samson Moeakiola as Pussy (later Big Pussy) Bonpensiero, etc. -- and they all obviously went "method actor" on their roles, mastering the body language, speaking rhythms, and so forth of their TV show counterparts. You're going to know who you're seeing as soon as you see them.

The two standouts in that respect are Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano (Tony Soprano's mother) and Corey Stoll as Corrado John "Junior" Soprano (Tony Soprano's uncle).

We first met Livia as a mentally and physically failing senior citizen, but still a powerful and domineering mother, in the show. Farmiga captures Nancy Marchand's take on Livia's essential personality, and rolls it back 30 years, absolutely perfectly. The hair on my neck stood up.

Stoll's take on Junior comes in a close second. He also had big shoes to fill. Dominic Chianese was pitch-perfect as the older Junior in the series: A wiseguy who thought he was smarter than he really was, and had a short and ill-considered fuse versus any perceived insult. Stoll rolls back the age without losing those essential characteristics, which turn out to have a larger effect on later events than we ever knew, or the feeling that we're seeing the same guy.

Liotta is a special case. His characters (yes, plural) don't show up in The Sopranos, but they go a long way toward making this movie worth the watch. Liotta plays Dickie Moltisanti's father, "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti, and Hollywood Dick's imprisoned brother Salvatore ("Sally"). They're twins, but they're also very different people. And Liotta nails both of them.

Here's the thing:

As a stand-alone movie, I just don't think I'd be a fan if I hadn't seen the series. It's no Goodfellas or Godfather. If the cast had been available back then, most plot elements of this movie could have been fit into the series as flashback (especially, but not only, the fourth season episode "For All Debts Public and Private"), and the show would have been even better as a result.

But as a fan of the series, I enjoyed it, and hope David Chase and company choose to fill in the period between the prequel and the series with even more back story movie stuff.

No comments: