Martin Scorsese’s long gestating mob epic, I Heard You Paint Houses aka The Irishman, is a monumental achievement from a master storyteller with a career filled with them. For those worried that Scorsese is just retreading old ground, The Irishman spotlights a new approach for this kind of territory. Instead of fast and exciting, things play more meditative and soulful. The titular Irishman, Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, spends a lifetime doing the mob’s dirty work but the way this kind of life breaks you feels like a film only Scorsese — and by extension his actors — could have made at this point in their respective careers. For all of the film’s ruminations, it never stops moving. It takes a lot of gall to make a 3 1/2 hour movie, but thanks to some brilliant work from long-time editor Thelma Schoomaker, the running time flies by. You’ll feel like you’ve watched the entire run of The Sopranos and will want to hit Play all over again.
Where the film really shines though is in the performances. De Niro is as good as he’s ever been. This is the kind of role De Niro could play in his sleep, but thanks to the meditative nature of the film, De Niro crafts one of his finest and most subtle performances. Al Pacino, on the other hand, delivers one of his most boisterous and entertaining roles in years as union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino hasn’t been this good in nearly two decades and it’s such a joy to watch him run away with scene after scene. Film fans have long waited for Pacino and Scorcese to work together and it was well worth the wait. The performance of the movie though has to be Joe Pesci. Pesci has been away from the game for so long you wonder if he’s still got it, but he squashes any concerns of rust from the moment he appears on screen. This isn’t big Goodfellas/Casino Pesci. This is something new. He’s quiet and contemplative yet you can’t take your eyes off him. He commands every scene and his presence is felt throughout the whole movie.
This is big, bold storytelling that spans decades of American life. Few filmmakers have the chops to pull something like this off (Kubrick, Bergman, Tarkovski, Leone, and Kurasawa are the only that come to mind) and Scorcese proves that he still has plenty of aces left up his sleeve. The pervasive digital de-aging effects can be hit or miss in places, but the story is so absorbing, so fully realized, the performances so commanding, that you won’t care. This is a big ride that’s worth every moment. Grade: A.