What’s telling about Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is how few studios were willing to take on its $159-million price tag. Only one company stepped up: Netflix. Since the dawn of Hollywood, the major studios have been willing to gamble on grand ambition and spectacle, from 1927’s first Oscar-winner “Wings” and David Lean’s desert epic “Lawrence of Arabia” to the more recent “Titanic” and fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.” Such all-in bets may make their backers lose sleep, but the movies can pay off handsomely, both at the box office and the Oscars.
Without risk, there’s no reward. The studios may be right that Scorsese’s sprawling 209-minute historical epic — which covers some of the same struggles among the Italian mafia, Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa, and the Kennedys as Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy — might not sustain enough of a theatrical release to yield a profit.
So Netflix backed the period movie and its ambitious visual effects, which successfully allow three Scorsese veterans — Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, 76, and 80-year-old Harvey Keitel — to play through three decades from the ’60s through the ’90s, along with Al Pacino, 79, working with Scorsese for the first time. (Sometimes their aging bodies are stiffer than their younger ones would have been, but the actors carry the story.)
Putting all these New York stars in one movie feels like an oddly mature, slowed-down mashup of Scorsese’s familiar New York gangsters with Coppola’s “Godfather” universe. Gone is the manic pace of “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street,” while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto adopts a muted sepia palette for the landscapes of New York, New Jersey, Detroit, and even Miami.
“The Irishman” also compares to Quentin Tarantino’s valentine to Hollywood, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” with lavish reconstructions of gleaming vintage luxury cars and such highway ephemera as Stuckey’s and the red-roofed Howard Johnson’s. The movie will rack up tech Oscar nominations for its groundbreaking de-aging VFX as well as cinematography, production, and costume design, along with Thelma Schoonmaker’s impeccable editing.
The stars also deliver. In his ninth role with Scorsese and his first since 1995’s “Casino,” De Niro is stone-faced yet sadly expressive as Frank Sheeran, a reliable and well-liked Irish-American Army vet and hitman who does what he is told by his mafia handlers but at some personal cost. He forms loving fraternal bonds not only with his mafia handler, Russell Bufalino, played with delicacy and grace by “Wiseguy” star Joe Pesci (who was coaxed by De Niro to come out of retirement for what is likely his last movie role), but another powerful figure, the fiercely independent Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), head of the mighty Teamsters union. Finally, Sheeran gets caught in the crossfire between the two men. All three actors are superb and should land nominations. But Pacino plays the most sympathetic, heroic character — a man willing to stand on his principles even at risk to his life.
Not only will the Academy crafts and actors support “The Irishman,” but the directors, producers, and writers will as well. Count on nominations for Oscar-winners Scorsese (“The Departed”) and Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), who adapted Charles Brandt’s 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Final Ride of Jimmy Hoffa” into a compelling drama that zips back and forth in time, always coming back to narrator Sheeran’s old man in a nursing home recounting his colorful life. Whether Sheeran’s account is fact or fiction, Scorsese’s movie is riveting. And the movie will land an inevitable Best Picture nomination for patient producers Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, who knew the movie would lure Scorsese.
While Netflix movie chief Scott Stuber tried to come to terms with the big chains in order to play this magnificently mounted drama on as many screens as possible, like Netflix Oscar-winner “Roma” this movie will play in independent cinemas. After opening the New York Film Festival, it will begin a theatrical run November 1 for three and half weeks before hitting the streamer November 27.
“The Irishman” puts Netflix well in the lead of this year’s Oscar derby; its slate also includes Noah Baumbach’s well-reviewed “Marriage Story,” which continues to build festival momentum from Venice, Telluride, and Toronto to its NYFF centerpiece screening on October 4, the same day that Netflix opens “Dolemite is My Name,” featuring an Eddie Murphy comeback performance, and Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes,” written by Oscar perennial Anthony McCarten and starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Benedict and Francis, respectively.
While the studios put up a fuss last year at Netflix’s heavy spending on “Roma,” which won three Oscars for Alfonso Cuaron, this year Netflix could do even better. Finally, they’re making and supporting the kind of movies that Oscar voters like.