Thursday, December 5, 2019

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: THE IRISHMAN (Spoilers)

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who no one will talk to in the nursing home.

Another reminder: Spoilers in the article ahead.

Adam: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week we’re discussing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. The film tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver and World War II veteran who became confidant & hitman for mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film spans Sheeran and Bufalino’s lives over several decades as their actions often intertwined with global politics and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. We could go in many different directions to begin our discussion of The Irishman, so let’s start with Pacino. I think he’s tremendous in the movie and it makes me really happy to see him in two of the best films of 2019: The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Pacino playing Jimmy Hoffa affords him the opportunity of being the most animated of the three lead actors. If you want an actor to spread his wings and go big, there’s few better than Al Pacino. The acting is so strong in The Irishman that (to me) he’s giving only the third best performance in the movie and yet is deserving of awards consideration for his work. I love the layers of Pacino’s Hoffa. He can operate in different ways depending on the situation, with the bottom line being he thrives on having the respect and admiration that comes with maintaining alpha status. I also marveled at how well Pacino depicted the sad hubris of Hoffa, especially in the awards dinner scene. In that sequence, Hoffa is oblivious that Sheeran’s allegiance is first to Bufalino and second to Hoffa, not the other way around. It’s heartbreaking. Conversely, Pacino having just-for-us ice cream sundaes with De Niro’s daughter, Peggy (played really well by Lucy Gallina) is heartwarming. I could watch that scene over and over because after Gallina thanks Pacino for the ice cream sundae he goes “Oh!” and it’s adorable.
Rob: I must have watched his “You can’t trust millionaires’ kids” bit (and imitated his finger pointing) on repeat about ten times while prepping for this column. That and his little song and dance after being saved from a would-be courtroom assassin by Chuckie (Jesse Plemons) are among his best moments. “I raised this boy!” “I felt a little...It was like an IMPACT. Not a bullet. Just a little impact, you know.” “You charge a guy with a gun! With a knife, you run away.” You can actually see the moment Hoffa recovers from genuine fear and turns on his showmanship. It’s like there’s an entire orchestra in Pacino’s head and he’s playing all the instruments and conducting at the same time. The way he switches gears, it’s just incredible. And it’s not all Over the Top Hooh-Ah Pacino, either! It’s so much more metered and tempered than that. “Oh, I can finally breathe.” That last moment with Frank in the house? Forgetaboutit.

That’s a lot of rambling right off the bat. Sorry about that. The facts are these: This is not only my favorite Pacino performance of the decade (not that there’s a ton of competition), but it’s among my top five of his entire career. In the same way that The Irishman as a whole is a culmination of Scorsese’s self-described “search for God,” Pacino’s Hoffa feels like a distillation of -- or maybe even a kind of self-aware commentary on -- every character he’s ever played. To continue the orchestral metaphor: He’s playing every note on the scale. It’s such a beautiful contrast to De Niro’s more muted performance as Frank Sheeran; whereas we can feel De Niro’s constant internal struggle (he’s literally quivering with imbalance and insecurity, at times, almost as if he’s about to boil over), we can also feel Pacino frantically reaching out for something -- anything -- to hold onto. All the while, Pesci stands still. Not stiff, by any means. Just perfectly still. “It is what it is.” You mentioned Pacino giving the third best performance of the film, but for me, all three have such different vibes that they’d share the top spot.

Three questions: Whose was your favorite non-Pesci/Pacino/De Niro performance? Do you think Frank Sheeran really killed Jimmy Hoffa? What would you order if you went out for ice cream with Al?

For me: 1. Ray Romano. 2. I do, if only for the sad, doomed romance of it all. 3. Hot fudge sundae with walnuts and caramel.

Adam: Ray Romano’s a great choice. I have a weird favorite outside of the big three. It’s the guy in Chicago who puts the vodka inside the watermelon. I would credit the actor, but I can’t remember the character name. I laughed at almost every line delivery he had in his brief scene. He reminds me of people I’ve come across in Chicago who laugh at their own comments and get so ramped up that they’re winded by the time they reach the end of a sentence. The man is delightful.

I think the Frank Sheeran version of the story is awfully compelling, but I don’t know if I necessarily believe he killed Jimmy Hoffa. The reason being is to accept that you must also accept a laundry list of other indictments (e.g. the mob was behind the Kennedy assassination) and I’m not ready to go there. It feels weird to say “I wish it were true” when it comes to this claim, but I would like it to be true to have closure to a long-standing controversy.

As for ice cream with Al... caramel sundae with a cherry, some chocolate and strawberry sauce.
Three questions for you:

1. Who do you think De Niro is telling his story to throughout the course of the movie? I read a theory that it was to the Grim Reaper or Death and this was him giving a testimonial about the life he lived. At first, I thought it was reaching, but now I’m leaning towards being more onboard with that interpretation because Russell makes the comment toward the end about Frank finding the church or G-D as his time comes.

2. There’s one line I didn’t quite understand, and I wanted to get your take. When Russell and Frank are in jail and sharing bread & wine, Russell says something like (regarding Hoffa), “It was him or us. I chose us.” Then he says “Fuck ‘em.” Do you think that last part was meant that a) He is doubling down he made the right decision and “Fuck Hoffa” or b) Now that it’s the end of the line, he’s saying “Fuck ‘em” to the higher ups that put him in position of having to kill Hoffa or not at his own peril?

3. Were you happy that Frank was watching the Phillies after he got out of prison? I was trying to place the date to determine which Phillies club he was watching on television.

Rob: 1. I was thinking about this one earlier. Scorsese has never had an issue breaking the fourth wall, so it’s entirely possible that Sheeran is just talking to the audience -- who, in turn, might be acting as a kind of “conscience” all along -- but more interesting choices might be Death, the priest who absolves him, or even his estranged daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin). Obviously that last one doesn’t make a lot of thematic sense, but I’m just throwing spaghetti at the wall here.

2. I took that particular “Fuck ‘em” as a variation on “It is what it is.” I think it parallels that earlier discussion they had about fearing death, how anyone who says they don’t is lying. Sheeran says that he resolved after the war to make choices and live with the consequences, and maybe that’s Russell confirming that stance and bringing it full-circle? I’d have to watch the scene a few more times, but I’ll be on the lookout for that.

3. So, the real Frank Sheeran died in 2003, which means he was probably watching a late-era (era) Bobby Abreu Phillies team. Larry Bowa was managing, and that was right around the time that guys like Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, and Chase Utley were starting to make waves. It was the beginning of what Henry Hill might have called “a glorious time,” even though we wouldn’t win anything for another few years.

Here’s a question: Did The Irishman make you want to read Charles Brant’s I Heard You Paint Houses, the novel on which the film is based? Are you a “see the movie, read the book” guy? I used to do that so much more often. I think I might get back to it.
Adam: I usually don’t but in this case I might. Oddly enough, I remember a cab driver in Las Vegas telling me about this book years ago. We were talking about mob movies (including Casino) and he said that “I heard you paint houses” was a code for a hit job. Then I went to the airport and thought “Well that was a weird conversation.” In hindsight, I’d love to know what that guy thought of The Irishman.

I’m guessing I already know the answer, but did you have any issues with the lack of dialogue from Anna Paquin or the runtime of The Irishman at 3-½ hours? I think those complaints are more revealing of the person complaining about them than they are criticisms of the movie. I love long, epic movies. When I see a runtime is 2-½ hours or more I just get in the mindset to let the movie do its job and wash over me since I’ll be there for a while. The Irishman was tougher in a theater with no intermission, but I’ve also watched it twice at home and had no issues with it.

Rob: There isn’t a frame wasted in The Irishman, but I can sympathize with people who had to watch it in chunks due to work or parental concerns. I found the “Watching The Irishman as a mini-series” that @dunerfors posted on Twitter to be really helpful, and I was so confused by the flack he was taking for suggesting that Great Cinema can be enjoyed in chunks. It absolutely can. It can be enjoyed in a theater. It can be enjoyed on a television. It can be enjoyed on a phone or tablet. I seem to be the rare film fan who has no particular delivery preference (as long as it’s not 3D), but even with that said, we all need to start being a little less precious about this stuff and quit with the cultural gatekeeping. Just let everyone be.

Adam: Well said.

Rob: And look, not to be aggressive (too late), but anyone who has an issue with Anna Paquin’s lack of dialogue is missing the point of her character. She’s Frank’s better angel, an omniscient moral arbiter that denies him the opportunity to talk his way out of his sins. It’s perfect. She’s perfect.

Anything else on The Irishman? Where does it rank for your favorites of 2019? It’s near the top of my list.
Adam: Not much else other than to say how great the acting is across the board especially Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino who are each near career-best if not at the height of their powers in The Irishman. I also really loved Scorsese’s use of silence for long stretches of the film (most specifically when Sheeran is carrying out the hit on Hoffa). It’s the exact right choice, even though Scorsese is a very musically inclined director (I say this as an appreciator of that choice and not as a slight). You need that moment to occupy the viewer until it sits in your gut with no relief or distraction.

Rob: Just real quick: One of my favorite bits of silence comes during Joey Gallo’s (Sebastien Maniscalco) party, right after Sheeran stops Gallo and Russell from coming to blows. There’s a silent beat while Russell and Sheeran share a knowing look. Another. Another. And then: “For a thing like this, you need two guns…” I laughed so hard at that moment on my first viewing. We don’t need any further information. Scorsese’s rhythm and editing told us exactly what was happening without a word of dialogue. It’s so great. Anyway. Carry on.

Adam: The Irishman is near the top of my list for 2019. The two Pacino movies are in a real slugfest for number 1. Whichever winds up at #2, it will be the best #2 that I’ve ever had on an F This Movie! Top 10.

Next week we’ll be back with another Martin Scorsese column where Rob and I each discuss two Scorsese movies that are new-to-us. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. I'm a little more lukewarm on this one than you guys; I did find it a bit tedious in it's length. I mean, does a 209 minute movie need a 3 minute scene where 2 tertiary characters argue about fish? Idk.

    But that's not what I'm here for. I've got a serious question. Is dipping bread into wine a thing? Is this a real thing amongst Italians? Is this a metaphor for communion? Who does this? Rob, comment?

  2. It's a thing in my family, but I'm not sure if it's an Italian thing or a South Philly Italian thing. American descendants have exaggerated certain Italian traditions and Americanized others (See The Sopranos), but in my family, we dip everything in everything. If you don't go through an entire loaf of Italian bread by dipping it in the Sunday gravy as it cooks, you're doing it wrong. I'm not huge on the wine/bread combo, myself, but my grandfather was.

  3. I can think of no more “Italian” answer to any question than “It’s a family thing...”

  4. The sound that Pacino makes upon his death was heartbreaking. So simple and horribly innocent sounding. I was so relieved Scorcese kept the actual killshot just off screen, it was a brilliant decision and also I don't think I could've handled it.

    Also important, was Raul Ibanez on the Phillies then or was he still in Seattle or KC? For whatever reason he was my favorite journeyman player no matter where he went, even when he was with the (spit on the ground) Yankees.

    1. Raul didn't join the Phillies until '09. He was a fan favorite, for sure.

  5. The standout performance for me outside the big-3 was Stephen Graham as Tony Pro. It can be a thankless task to play the asshole, and I really appreciated his performance.

    Man, there's nothing like a well-written, well-directed, well-acted, well-edited film. If you get all 4 of those things, the length just doesn't matter at all. The pace and tone and themes of The Irishman all work together. Very good film.

    I'm one of the people who watched it in segments. I don't think it diminished my experience at all. 100% agree that the gatekeeping has become tiresome.

    1. I like Stephen Graham more and more on every watch. He's great in this.

  6. I'm looking forward to reading this, after I watch the movie, which I'm also very much looking forward too. At 209 minutes, it's just such a task to watch. I'm waiting until the holidays so I have time to watch all at once. From what I've heard, it's a fantastic movie, and probably deserves to be seen in one shot, rather than in 30 minutes chunks while riding the bus.