Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Many Saints of Newark won't please either Sopranos fans or crime movie junkies

One of the many virtues of the original Sopranos TV show is that it felt like it occupied a world you could walk into. That lent a sense of immediate tangibility to the stores, the homes, the streets, all while making the mobster characters extra terrifying. If you could reach out to touch one of the lampposts, surely Tony Soprano could reach out and wring your neck! It's one of the best qualities of The Sopranos and it's, unfortunately, missing from The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel feature film to the original TV show. Hailing from director Alan Taylor, this production feels more like a rushed trip down vaguely familiar neighborhoods than stopping by lived-in environments.

 The Many Saints of Newark travels back in time to 1967, where Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is one of several New Jersey gangsters working overtime to keep a criminal empire moving smoothly. Among his associates is Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) while Moltisanti also serves as a surrogate father figure to Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini). Simultaneously, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) decides he's done just doing odd jobs for gangsters like Moltisanti, he wants to make something for himself. Also running as a subplot is the plight of Giuseppina Moltisanti (Michela de Rossi) and, in addition to becoming Moltisanti's lover, also wants to open up her own beauty salon.

If you know the TV show The Sopranos, you know none of these storylines will end in happiness. If you know that program, you'll also be super conscious of all the eye-rolling attempts at "fan-service" that The Many Saints of Newark throws your way. This includes the baffling decision to have actors like John Magaro and Billy Magnussen waltz around as younger versions of characters like Silvio Dante and Paulie Walnuts. These actors pucker their lips, flutter their arms, and adjust their gait, all in the name of mimicking performances from a TV show from twenty years ago. In the process of aiming for accurate mimicry, the world of Newark doesn't feel real. It just feels like we're watching footage from a Sopranos-themed cosplay convention.

The original show was all about uncovering everyday vulnerabilities in figures who could've just been caricatures. The Many Saints of Newark, meanwhile, just brings on the caricatures in an effort to remind you of what you know.

Another problem is David Chase and Lawrence Konner's messy screenplay, which spans so many storylines and over four years worth of events, but doesn't say much of anything. Take the 1967 Newark riots, a major historical event, but it just happens early on in the plot out of a sense of obligation rather than anything else. Meanwhile, the expansive scope keeps leaving seemingly critical details in the lurch. Giuseppina vanishes for such a long stretch of the runtime that I thought she and Dickie got a divorce. Worst of all, the script does such a poor job of accentuating the relationship Tony has to Dickie that it has to resort to characters dropping didactic lines like "You two sure are close, huh?" 

Part of the issue is that Dickie just isn't that interesting of a character despite being portrayed by talented performer Alessandro Nivola. If you held a gun to my head, I couldn't describe his personality and it seems like he's the lead character mostly because his son was a principal character on The Sopranos. The screenplay never justifies why he's the most prominent figure in this narrative. Then again, maybe Dickie would've proven more interesting if the filmmaking was more up to par. Director Alan Taylor captures The Many Saints of Newark with a shocking level of flatness, it's almost insulting how little imagination there is to the blocking and staging. 

A distracting sense of artificiality permeates key scenes, like a beachside conversation between Dickie and Giuseppina, that just further removes you from what's happening on-screen. Taylor's lack of thoughtfulness extends to a soundtrack full of predictable needle drops for any movie set in the 1960s and 1970s. We should all thank our lucky stars they just didn't find a spot for Fortunate Son to blare on the soundtrack! 

Not all of The Many Saints of Newark is a waste. The cast has its bright spots, including Michael Gandolfini doing nicely understated work as a young Tony Soprano. The more restrained of Ray Liotta's two roles is also a highlight of the film, Liotta does commendable work conveying a greater sense of consciousness than anyone else in the cast of just how inescapably empty this mob life is. Committing to that level of bleakness is admirable, but The Many Saints of Newark rarely does anything truly interesting with that element. It's either functioning as a generic crime movie or, as seen in its unintentional comical ending, middle-of-the-road Sopranos fan-fiction. 

Instead of waking up this morning and getting yourself a gun, how about just getting a movie more competently made than The Many Saints of Newark?

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