by Rob DiCristino
David Chase’s The Sopranos is easily the most influential live-action television show in the history of the medium. That’s not hyperbole, nor is it recency bias. I didn’t say it was the best show or that it was my favorite. It’s neither, frankly, but there is simply no denying the profound effect it has had on the way television is produced and broadcast in the two decades since its premiere. Television does not shift from disposable pablum to sophisticated, nuanced, long-form storytelling without The Sopranos. There is absolutely no room to debate this. We cannot move on unless we come to a consensus on it as objective fact. Good. With that out of the way, we may also agree that revisiting Tony Soprano’s world after fourteen years — especially in the motion picture format — is a risky proposition. After all, The Sopranos is a story about the banality of evil and the contradictions of twenty-first century life. It’s a story about suburban decay and the fading archetype of the American male. Tony’s story is a slow burn, not a thrill ride.
First, the good: Sopranos loyalists will appreciate the countless Easter eggs and callbacks peppered throughout this long-awaited return to Jersey. Some are just sight gags, like a young Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) applying lacquer to his fingernails at the dinner table. Some are more elaborate, like Vera Farmiga’s wonderful depiction of Livia Soprano, whose borderline personality disorder is already poisoning her relationships and leads to one especially laugh-out-loud moment with her husband, Johnny. Nivola and Liotta bring the famous Moltisanti temper to life in ways we’ve always imagined, but — in a twist too good to spoil here — also reveal some hidden depths and introspection. Dickie’s struggle to nurture his “nephew” Tony, which satiates his paternal urges until young Christopher is born, informs both men’s development and, in many ways, shapes the central conflict of The Sopranos decades later. Chase (with co-writer Lawrence Konner) hasn’t lost a step when it comes to father/son drama.
Maybe that’s because The Many Saints of Newark is distracted by a Leslie Odom, Jr. subplot that is, in the end, entirely superfluous. Far too much time is spent on his Harold’s evolution from one of Moltisanti’s many runners to a rival boss and symbol of Newark’s African American uprising. To be clear, that story is fascinating and would be well served by a separate movie with the appropriate cinematic real estate to really flesh it out. Here, however, there just isn’t space. Both Harold and Dickie are required to cede too much screen time to each other’s stories, forcing a balance that robs both of desperately-needed nuance. Harold’s big third act move against Dickie doesn’t feel like a true betrayal because we’re never given a chance to care about their dynamic. The riots and their aftermath are backgrounded at every opportunity, and the casual racism bandied about by the DiMeo crew — maybe intended to be a commentary on the white flight and redlining injustices of the era (era) — fails to propel the story in any real way.