Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s glittering collaborative history adds a crowning cherry with “The Irishman,” an epic, decades-spanning mob movie that hits theaters, briefly, before a date with Netflix. Oozing prestige, the movie’s 3 ½-hour length works against it, certainly in terms of making the case to watch it somewhere other than at home.
To get the main questions out of the way, yes, the film gives Netflix a legitimate Oscar contender; no, the de-aging of key characters isn’t particularly distracting; and no, the movie didn’t need to be this long.
In essence, Netflix has let Scorsese release his director’s cut, and absorb the steep costs, in its thirst for an awards contender, when the first 45 minutes or so – before Al Pacino swoops in, devouring scenery as Jimmy Hoffa – and last half-hour easily could have been nipped and tucked without losing a whole lot.
If the portions are too big, though, at least it’s a gourmet meal, inviting inevitable comparisons to “Goodfellas.” Here, it’s De Niro’s hitman Frank Sheeran – who became union boss Hoffa’s right-hand man – serving as the narrator/guide through a history that encompasses the mob helping John F. Kennedy get elected, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Hoffa’s struggles with the Justice Dept. and his disappearance in 1975.
Adapted by Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” (mob code for discussing a hit), “The Irishman” includes a who’s who of Scorsese regulars, including a particularly splendid Joe Pesci as the gentlemanly Russell Bufalino – Frank’s mob mentor – and Harvey Keitel as the boss of bosses.
Prone to long, leisurely exchanges, and frequently darkly funny, Scorsese’s narrative has an almost Zelig-like quality in terms of the notorious figures that passed through Frank’s orbit. Pacino, meanwhile, is the explosive counterpoint to De Niro’s clenched character, the real raging bull here.
“You never reveal how you feel,” Hoffa tells Frank, failing to see the wisdom behind that strategy in his line of work.
“The Irishman” provides an exceptionally strong showcase for De Niro, marking the star’s ninth film with Scorsese, going back to “Mean Streets” in 1973. If it doesn’t rank near the top of that list, placing somewhere in the middle still leaves it in good company.
That’s not to say “The Irishman” is without flaws, beyond the indulgent tonnage of it. The female characters, notably, barely register, with Anna Paquin underused in what could have been a key role as Frank’s daughter, once grown, having watched her father’s behavior in her younger years with thinly concealed dread.
The chronology also proves a bit messy, with the narration not always immediately connecting events as they ping-pong across the years. Nor is there much sense of urgency, particularly in the early going, which basically meanders through Frank’s introduction to mob life until Hoffa’s arrival brings the film’s spine into focus.
Those aren’t entirely quibbles, but they’re not enough to secure an indictment against a movie with the kind of dramatic heft that, as Scorsese has recently lamented, franchise-minded studios simply aren’t eager to make anymore.
Then again, perhaps that’s in part because most people will be content to watch a marathon like “The Irishman” on TV.
“The Irishman” premieres in select theaters in the US. on Nov. 1, and Nov. 27 on Netflix. It’s rated R.