The Many Saints of Newark
Directed by Alan Taylor
Screenplay by David Chase & Lawrence Konner
Starring Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Jon Berthnal, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi
Origin stories. This current trend must stop immediately.
Revisiting classic film and television characters years later and cashing in on their popularity by trying to tell how they became what or who they are (be they superhero, serial killer, or mobster), is just a desperate attempt by studios to let name or brand recognition lead to more money, most of the time coming at the peril of good storytelling.
There is the ever so rare occasion when it works. 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2019’s “Joker” messed around with their subject’s lore and found inventive ways to tell the beginnings of the characters and situations that filmgoers were already endeared to.
These two films were well done, honored the films that came before them, and are extremely rare in how artistically successful they turned out to be. Almost every other time producers see dollar signs and trick fans into shelling out more of their hard-earned dollars, it fails miserably. For every “Rise…” and “Joker”, we also have “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”, “Oz the Great and Powerful”, Rob Zombie’s “Halloween”, and tv’s “Young Sheldon” and “The Carrie Diaries”. Sadly, the list goes on.
2021 brings fans of HBO’s groundbreaking series “The Sopranos” a look at the origins of that show’s beloved cast of characters and the early days of a young Tony Soprano. At least that is what the marketing would have you believe.
What Alan Taylor’s new film, “The Many Saints of Newark” does is trick its built-in audience into thinking they will get to see Tony Soprano’s wide-eyed youthful seduction into the world of organized crime. What filmgoers get is a half-assed gangster film that is neither interesting, exciting, nor profound, which “The Sopranos” was in almost every single episode.
Things are off to a horrible start from the very beginning. The camera slowly moves through a New Jersey graveyard, and we hear voices of the dead from each headstone it passes. We finally get to the grave of fan favorite Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). Those who watched the show know the character is dead, but he begins narrating the film and does so throughout. Yes, you read that correctly. I could not believe it either. “Sunset Boulevard” this ain’t! Imperioli returns to voice the character and I am dumbfounded as to how he looked at the script and stopped himself from throwing it across the room. Kudos to the actor for that kind of self-restraint.
Written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner, the film is set in Newark, New Jersey circa the late 60’s and early 70’s. We are introduced to Dickie Momtisanti (Christopher’s father), a low-to-mid-level mobster who is under the shadow of his abusive and abrasive (and uber-cliched) daddy.
Ray Liotta is Dickie’s poppa and plays it like Ray Liotta. It is a good performance but it is the one we all expect from the actor.
Alessandro Nivola is Dickie. From his first moment, it is obvious that he is the wrong actor for this role. Nivola is part Italian, but his performance is completely phony and, at times, embarrassingly overelaborate, as he works too hard at Dickie’s mannerisms. When the actor throws out the standard angry “Oh!” and “Fughetaboutit!”, it is completely embarrassing. Most of the performances in the film work well enough, but Nivola’s is terrible to the point where it becomes annoying.
Ray Liotta is given a chance to climb out of his cliched role as Dickie’s dad by playing the dual role of his incarcerated uncle. His few scenes as this character are mellow and well played. It is here where Liotta shows the gravitas that makes him one of our most reliable actors.
As we move through Dickie’s life, the film is strikingly unfocused. Scenes jump around with no rhyme or reason. Each moment only exists to get that scene done and then motor on to the next one. It is more a series of dramatic sketches than a constant narrative.
As the characters from the show come into play, the screenplay’s weaknesses continue to disappoint. There are no real character beats to keep us involved.
Jon Bernthal does fine as Tony Soprano’s father but if you have seen the actor’s previous works, you have seen his performance here. Joseph Siravo played the role in the show’s flashbacks, but the actor died of cancer earlier this year.
Corey Stoll plays Uncle Junior and fails to register at all. While he certainly gets mileage out of “Uncle June’s” signature vulgarity, Stoll doesn’t do much else to leave a mark and never captures the memorable rhythms that Dominic Chianese brought to the role.
Vera Farmiga fares better as Tony’s mother. Nancy Marchand played her so perfectly on the show and Farmiga matches Marchand’s speech patterns and diction the best she can. It is a good performance, but the role is another one that is let down by the screenplay. The show found Tony Soprano talking to his therapist about the contentious and aggressive relationship with his mother and how she bullied him in his youth and well into his adulthood. We don’t get that here. They have a few very minor confrontations, but overall, she seems like a good woman trying to keep her family afloat, where the show painted her as a monster from the beginning. An unwelcome change to the character that, once again, betrays the good graces of the series.
Of course, we get to meet “Pauly Walnuts”, “Big Pussy”, and “Silvio Dante”, three of the HBO series most popular characters. The actors who portray their younger versions (Billy Magnussen, Samson Moeakiola, and John Magaro, respectively) do good work and their performances are more than mere impressions of the original actors. One of the few smart choices Chase and Konner make is to keep these characters in small moments.
As the film continues through its badly edited scene hopping, we are introduced to the most interesting aspect of the entire piece. Leslie Odom Jr. plays Harold, a man who is trying to get a hold on the numbers racket and control the money flow in the Black community. There is constant pushback from the local mob, but the young hustler strikes up a dangerous partnership (or so he thinks) with Dickie. Soon, Harold wants to be a boss and with the help of real-life Harlem mobster Frank Lucas (the focus of Ridley Scott’s miles better 2007 film “American Gangster”), he sets out to take the numbers game from the Italians.
Odom Jr. is very good and gives the film’s best and most honest performance. It is his story (and the story of the Newark riots of 1967) where real dramatic spark is found. The parallels of Harold trying to be seen as an equal are representative of the struggles Black Americans faced while fighting for legitimate recognition during those tumultuous times. Perhaps David Chase should have written a film about Odom Jr.’s character. That might have been something to see.
There is a half-baked subplot with Dickie’s father’s wife Giuseppina (a good Michela De Rossi). Dickie wants Giuseppina and she wants him. Giuseppina is also attracted to someone that could put her life in danger. I will not reveal who, as it is the film’s only real surprise once it all plays out.
Dickie is close to his nephew, young Tony Soprano. He treats him like his own son and Tony looks up to him. Michael Gandolfini (James G’s actual son) is almost the spitting image of his father, which works very well for his performance. Gandolfini is a good young actor and shows it here, as his work doesn’t “ape” his father’s but compliments it.
The film’s screenplay, however, does not compliment the young actor’s performance. After the false flag marketing campaign by the studio, the young Tony Soprano is reduced to a not-so-wide-eyed kid who does petty crimes in school and is on the verge of expulsion. Sure, this might be the mobster thought process taking shape within the young man, but the character is clumsily constructed and presented as a kid who just wants to make a quick buck. A bit crooked in how he gets money, young Tony just wants to be a kid. As a teen, he wants to get beer, smoke, and have fun. That is all this film’s version of Tony Soprano offers. There is no real insight given to the character’s motivations beyond a quite moving final shot that does work very well. I give it to the filmmakers on that final moment, it says everything about Tony Soprano’s future in one shot. If only the whole film could have been that perfect.
Even in the lesser episodes of “The Sopranos”, there was a sense of something clever and intelligent. This film is bogged down by one-dimensional emotions dictated by the screenplay not the characters. There is nothing new, adventurous, or profound here. Nothing is organic and almost nothing works. If this were not billed as “A Sopranos Story”, no one would care.
I have heard people say, “It helps to be a fan of the show to enjoy this film.” I am a big fan of HBO’s classic series and that is why this dramatically ridiculous and lackluster picture made me so angry.
Chase and Taylor’s film is made up of nothing but references to the show without having a handle on the characters they created. Without the callbacks to “The Sopranos”, this could be any low rent mob story. Every line of dialogue has no depth. Almost every character is misused. And where the original series took the “been there/done that” mafia story to newer and more emotional heights and made the genre feel fresh again, Chase and Taylor’s film falls backwards, scooping up every overused cliche they can. The film does not have the strength to stand on its own and by the time we get a small cameo of a young Carmela and finally get to hear the theme song from the series, it all becomes pure desperation.
Alan Taylor’s direction on his nine episodes of the series was inspired, as was his work on episodes of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, “Bored to Death”, and “Boardwalk Empire”. Here, the director tries hard to give an artistic slant to a few moments but comes up short. There are many times where it feels as if anyone could have directed this film. Taylor leaves behind no mark as a filmmaker here. Cinematographer Kramer Morganthau fares no better, as he shoots everything with dull, flat, color palettes.
Pacing and emotional power are the film’s two biggest casualties. Not one scene flows properly into the other, each one held together by the mere need to move on to the next outburst or drama or violence. Both the screenplay and the direction are afraid to get in close to their main characters. In the show, we wanted to listen to long dialogues about the lives and issues of the people who exist in this world. It was about the mob, but it was so much more. The drama and power of this piece is smothered in an overall lackluster attitude and presentation.
Chase’s long-awaited project is not the clever look inside the seeds of organized crime being planted inside a young Tony Soprano. What exists is a subpar mob film that is too unfocused.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is a big “va fangul!” to the brilliant legacy of “The Sopranos” and the most heartbreakingly disappointing film I have seen this year.
R, 120 Minutes, Chase Films, HBO Films, Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Cinema