Woke up this mornin’, got myself a pun. The fear, re this Sopranos prequel, was that David Chase, the show’s creator, was tampering with perfection. The trailer was generic (sub-par Scorsese). Turns out that trailer is a work of genius, mis-directing the viewer and helping to create a WTF moment that few blockbusters in 2021 are likely to match. Chase is a big-screen natural. Who Newark? (Ahem, I never said it was a good pun).
It’s all part of the movie’s charm that it’s so tough to define. Yes, it’s an origin story for James Gandolfini’s mobster, Tony Soprano, given extra oomph by the fact that Tony, as a teenager, is played by the late Gandolfini’s real-life son, Michael. Yet it would be just as accurate to describe it as a portrait of the relationship between Tony’s dashing, sentimental, gangster uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), and Dickie’s right-hand-man Harold (Leslie Odom Jr). At the start of the movie, Tony and Harold are both happy to be in Dickie’s shadow. By the end, a lot’s changed.
If the TV show was full of insights into prejudice and discrimination, the movie goes further: racism and misogyny are central to the plot.
Vera Farmiga has a blast as Livia, Tony’s sidelined, ferociously miserable mum, whose smokin’ hair-do, in one scene, is destined to become a major meme and whose blue eyes, which shine with warmth for a tantalising minute, dominate the film’s most emotional set-piece.
Meanwhile, Michela De Rossi is sensational as Dickie’s Italian step-mother Giuseppina, a beautiful and endlessly surprising creature who once dreamt of “becoming a priest”, and gets kicked down the stairs by her husband (Ray Liotta) for using a douche bag. Until watching The Many Saints of Newark, I didn’t know what a douche bag was. My eyes have been opened.
Though a subtle powerhouse of an actor for years, Nivola’s never become a household name. This film should change that, just as it will launch Gandolfini’s career (he was in Ocean’s 8, but this is his first big role). Let’s hope he doesn’t get stuck in the mobster movie ghetto. Gandolfini uses his baby face and still vaguely child-like voice in ingenious ways. Surrounded by charismatic performers, he totally holds his own, though the film’s funniest line actually goes to William Ludwig, the kid who plays the pre-pubescent Tony.
Do you need to have seen the TV show to follow the plot? Not at all, though when Tony turns to a pretty blonde friend and addresses her as Carmela, it will create goosebumps for anyone lucky enough to have enjoyed Edie Falco’s volcano-deep performance. Similarly, having the adult Christopher (Michael Imperioli) as the understandably pissed-off narrator will mean more if you watched Tony, in series six, choke his nephew to death.
One quibble: the desire to do right by all of the adult Tony’s henchmen creates problems, with the wonderful John Magaro, seen in 2019 film First Cow, so desperate to copy the hilariously mannered mannerisms of Steven Van Zandt’s Silvio Dante that he tips distractingly into caricature. But that’s the exception to the rule.
The Many Saints of Newark proves as intricate and intimate as Philip Roth’s Newark-set novel, American Pastoral. It’s also a gazillion times better than Scorsese’s The Irishman, up there instead with Mean Streets and Raging Bull.
What it’s not is an attempt by Chase to prove he’s one of the big boys. How could it be, when it’s ABOUT the futility of pissing contests? Casually important, traumatically enjoyable, The Many Saints of Newark is a tale of the unexpected that will cause cineastes, as well as life-long couch potatoes, to cry hallelujah.
In cinemas from September 22