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Many Saints of Newark, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Little Anthony And The Imperioli"
3 stars

Even in a time when the rush to resurrect old properties in the hopes of using residual audience goodwill to attract viewers is so pronounced that it sometimes feels as if they have hardly been gone long enough to be missed, the idea of extending the brand that is “The Sopranos” seems like a potentially dubious proposition. Even if you set aside the considerable artistic legacy left by the hugely popular HBO series—and it indeed will go down as one of the landmark works of popular entertainment produced in this country—anyone even thinking of doing anything further with it faces two overwhelming obstacles. The first is that the original show ended on such a perfect note of ambiguity—it was great, admit it—that to show anything beyond that point would ended up kind of retroactively ruining that conclusion, especially for future viewers coming to the show for the first time. Even if creator David Chase had somehow managed to find the perfect way of going forward with the sprawling storyline and cast of colorful characters that he created (at least those still above the ground), it wouldn’t matter because with the untimely and unfair real-life passing of James Gandolfini necessitating the absence of Tony Soprano, he would have lost not just the show’s central character but its heart and soul as well.

Unable to go forward, Chase, along with co-writer Lawrence Konner and director Alan Taylor (all veterans of the show) have elected to instead go backwards with “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel set in the late 60s/early 70s that not only presents many of the show’s familiar characters and their complex relationships in their earlier incarnations but which also, at least according to the ads, promises to show the formation of young Tony Soprano into the iconic character that we followed from week to week. As a further coup—or at least an ingenious way of negating the knee-jerk criticism that some might have towards anyone else trying to play Tony, Gandolfini’s own son, Michael, has been tapped to play the younger Tony. The film is clearly not the end of simple cash-grab that it might have been in lesser hands but even with all the effort that has gone into it, the film ultimately suffers from the same basic lack of necessity that is pretty much baked into any prequel—no matter how compelling the story may be on a basic narrative level, anyone familiar with the show realizes that the story can only go in certain ways and therefore lacks the sense of urgency and surprise that helped to juice its greatest episodes.

At least the film has the wit to cheekily acknowledge these hurdles by literally opening in a graveyard where we hear the voices of the dead, mostly still grumbling about how they got there, before eventually settling on the grave of the person who will serve as narrator, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), the “Kundun” lover who was a key character in the series until he caused enough trouble to earn a whacking at the hands of his “uncle” Tony. The story he recounts is of the rise and inevitable fall of his own father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), and how he would go on to influence, for good and ill, the man who would one day kill his own son. When we first see Dickie, he demonstrates a genuine sense of elegance and gentleness, the kind that the young Tony eagerly responds to while his own old man (Jon Bernthal) is usually away doing a stretch in prison. Alas, behind that veneer of gentility is a rage that not even nice suits and tickets to the ball game can quite hide and as the story unfolds, we see the more monstrous man underneath gradually emerge in ways that touch nearly everyone he encounters.

Beginning in 1967, the story kicks in with Dickie arriving at the docks to greet the return of his father Aldo (Ray Liotta), a big-mouthed boor who has returned from an extended vacation in Italy with the ultimate souvenir—a gorgeous new wife named Giuseppina (Michaela De Rossi) who is even younger than her new stepson.Trust me, you do not need to have read “Oedipus Rex” to know where this is going though Aldo is too busy prattling on, intoxicated by the sound of his own crudity, to notice the instant connection between his new bride and his son. To his credit, Dickie tries to keep things on the straight and narrow in regards to her, even after she overtly comes on to him out of loneliness and despair. However, when Aldo starts knocking her around, he sees red, there is a confrontation and we are soon at the first of the three funeral sequences that will serve as a sort of through line for the story.

Another relationship that eventually goes violently wrong involves Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who is charge of handling the running of numbers in the Black section of Newark for the Mob and who we first see beating the crap out of a local punk trying to steal from them. Dickie is friendly enough to Harold—much to the consternation of some of the others in their circle of thieves—but Harold, galvanized by ambition as well as anger over the 1967 Newark race riots sparked by a Black cab driver beaten by white local cops, is clearly looking for a bigger piece of the pie. (Dickie, on the other hand, sees the riots only as a convenient way to dispose of an extremely inconvenient corpse.) The growing rivalry between the two former associates finally erupts in 1971 and will have lasting repercussions for many. As Dickie finds himself resorting to increasingly inhumane acts in order to survive and get ahead, he is also consumed with the need to perform good deeds—especially in his mentoring of young Tony—to salve his conscience. At one point, as the bodies begin piling up around him, someone remarks to Dickie that he is surrounded by so much tragedy in his life. To this, he nods sagely and somberly, as though it has not even occurred to him that he himself is literally responsible for so many of those alleged tragedies.

When “The Many Saints of Newark” is at its best, it is almost always because of the performance from Nivola, a good actor who has never quite found the right star-making role but who is pretty much galvanizing throughout. Nivola makes Dickie into someone that you actually can believe genuinely wants to do the right thing but simply has no idea how to go about such a task in a way that doesn’t necessitate a run for some quicklime. When he is front-and-center, the film finds some much-needed focus and comes alive. Liotta also turns in a very entertaining performance that starts off with him aiming for the rafters with practically every line and gesture and then shifts gears considerably in ways that I will leave for you to discover. As for the much-hyped turn by the younger Gandolfini, who turns up in the film’s second half, he is more of a presence than a performer her but he is certainly engaging and the numerous ways in which he subtly suggests his father are infinitely more evocative that what could have been accomplished via another actor.

The problem with the film is that the script by Chase and Konner is a little too flat at times for its own good, feeling more like a mid-level mobster film trying to emulate “The Sopranos instead of one trying to continue its legacy. Sure, there are a number of fun individual scenes and bits of pungent dialogue that turn up here and there to score some big laughs. At the same time, the plotting at times is distressingly thin—the gambit used to ratchet up the stakes in the Dickie-Harold conflict is so out of left field and dropped into the mix so gracelessly that you may find yourself thinking that you must have somehow missed a couple of scenes because there is no way that it could possibly drop in something like that in such an abrupt and clunky manner. As for the majority of the other members of the sprawling cast, there are no bum performances to speak of but too many of the new characters are drawn a little too broadly and thinly and the younger incarnations of the more familiar faces—including Vera Farmiga as Livia, Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano, Blly Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts and John Magaro as Silvio—too often feel like fan service nods than integral parts of the story, This is especially egregious in the case of Livia, who, it is suggested here, became the cold and cruelly withholding character that we grew to alternately love and fear (much like Tony) on the show because the young Tony was unable to convince her to try an anti-depressant that might have helped her be more nurturing. To cast Farmiga in this role is an inspired bit of casting. To give her so little to do is frankly a little bewildering.

Considering the fact that “The Sopranos” helped to revolutionize television by telling its story with the kind of grandeur and sweep one normally associated with large-canvas cinematic epics—and not just the “Godfather” films—it is more than a bit ironic to watch its big-screen incarnation and realize that it is more like an average mid-season episode of the show. It has just enough of the stuff that made the original show so great to keep fans interested (though I suspect the mileage will vary greatly for those going into it cold) but is ultimately inessential enough that one could easily skip over it and not really miss much of anything in the process. It is said that Chase resisted pleas from HBO to somehow continue on with the series, presumably because he recognized that it was one of those rare confluences of elements that could never be replicated. “The Many Saints of Newark” is entertaining enough, I suppose, but in the end, all it really does is prove that his initial instincts were correct.

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originally posted: 09/28/21 12:24:37
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10/13/21 Lahey Many Saints of Boring 1 stars
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