I spent most of 2020 getting through The Sopranos. It was my pandemic comfort, an engrossing, funny and constant plodding towards destruction that was oddly reassuring compared to the chaos out there in the real world. When I finished the series, I sat with it for a week—buzzing—before digging into Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz’s phenomenal The Sopranos Sessions. It was the only post-mortem I needed for the series, dense and exploratory and as familiar to me as the gabagoons I’d come to know, love and loathe. Now, prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark brings subtlety to the surface and turns implied influences into physical beings by anthropomorphizing a new, condensed tale of doomed and petty gangsterism into a father figure for Tony Soprano: Dickie Moltisanti.
Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), long-dead father of the series’ Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who opens the film with ridiculous voiceover), has always been more symbol than man. He was a legend. A martyr. An honorable headstone that an aspiring made man could respect. And one whose legacy was a lie. Not only a lie, but a lie that left his son in the hands of a monster. In the show, he was a perfect encapsulation of the life’s fallacy: A lauded and respected badass…whose death was orchestrated by a friend, covered up, and led his family to ruin. But in case that wasn’t clear, in case this magnetic cycle of masculine failure went over people’s heads, The Many Saints of Newark gives us The Sopranos Lite featuring Mr. Moltisanti himself.
Written by showrunner David Chase and series writer Lawrence Konner, and directed by Alan Taylor—consistently solid on TV, winning an Emmy for “Kennedy and Heidi,” and consistently underwhelming on the big screen, winning my scorn for Thor: The Dark World—The Many Saints of Newark tracks the major moments in Moltisanti’s life in order to explain how Tony Soprano came to be, and to show that nothing has changed since the ‘60s and ‘70s. Moltisanti and the Italians see their control of the city (and its organized crime) challenged by an increasingly confident Black community—led by ex-Moltisanti friend/employee Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). If you haven’t seen the show, this’ll give you a watered-down, condensed (probably confusing) version of its message and vibe. If you have, it’ll play like a long recap with all the good stuff replaced by winks and nudges.
Of course, the film is haunted by Tony and, to an extent, the late James Gandolfini. Seeing his face, grinning and pouting on his son Michael (game but underwhelming as young Tony) is uncanny. Tony’s always lurking in the corners of the film, inspiring some of the movie’s dumbest, broadest omens—baby Christopher cries whenever Tony is near; Tony witnessing birds symbolizing death—that are consistently explained with further dialogue for the audience members who, I guess, wandered into the wrong theater on their way back from the bathroom and are wondering what the hell is going on in Jersey.
This inelegance is the true throughline of The Many Saints of Newark, some of it inherent to its very existence. The people that made The Sopranos making a Sopranos movie means a head-on collision of form. It means rushing through the shorthand events of a Sopranos season—an arrival, a dangerous desire, a holiday and funerals galore—struggling to fit long, violent arcs of passion-resentment-fury into a movie’s finite runtime and rhythms. Nothing works quite right, even the Easter eggs. The namedrops and needledrops might net a few drops of serotonin through sheer association (AKA the thing they’re designed to do), but the distraction is clownish and pandering. Even the lowest-brow mispronunciation gags in The Sopranos had an air of erudition, or at least a respect for its audience. (Knowing a viewer likes a dumb joke now and then can still be respectful.) Here you get bad biopic levels of “Hey, look who it is!” And sometimes, more egregiously, “Hey, look what this means!”
“Let him through!” a cop yells, waving a murderous Moltisanti’s car through a race riot. “He’s white!” another screams, as if we didn’t get the memo. Perhaps in the move from HBO to the big screen, the powers that be demanded that the lowest common denominator be taken down, down, down. Maybe some of that feeling comes from the recent familiarity I have with the show. It’s fresh in my head, as is the viewing toolbox you develop to watch it well. Whether that made its plot points seem excruciatingly telegraphed (not tense, just obvious) and its themes as bright and garish as Atlantic City, I’m not sure.
But the ease with which its creators work in this world also allows for a few impressive displays of expertise. A few shots glide pleasingly; a few story beats evoke that uneasy excitement of comeuppance. John Magaro’s Silvio initially comes off as an impression better suited for an SNL audition…and then the performance flourishes beyond a caricature of posture and expression into a charm channeling the warmth of Steven Van Zandt. Vera Farmiga, playing Tony’s mom, Livia, impressively embodies the icon’s inescapable mommy issues. Her performance draws easy parallels between mother and wife, with all the physicality of Nancy Marchand and the vocal tone of Edie Falco’s Carmela. The hair and makeup team’s work to transform Farmiga is a little arresting at first, but it soon becomes the immersive kind of uncanny. Her work is especially effective considering that Moltisanti, fitting in with the rest of his proto-Tony characterization, also has a weird mom thing going on thanks to his dad’s (Ray Liotta) young, hot new wife (Michela De Rossi) from the old country.
But if any performance is of note, it’s that of Nivola. With his naughty-boy smirk (enhanced by front teeth that stick out just so a la Gandolfini) and knack for noogies that becomes physically terrifying thanks to his switch-flip rage, Nivola mirrors one of the great performances of the 21st century without it being derivative mimicry. His dark and handsome smoothness, coupled with the same menace and inner turmoil that will eventually plague Tony—and, The Many Saints of Newark puts forward, should plague any self-aware gangster—allow Nivola to shine in an ambitious if unforgiving role. In football, it’s known as a hospital pass: A throw that could be game-winning, but will almost certainly set the receiver up for a hell of a smack. Despite needing to cram an idea, an arc, a suggestion of the depth that Tony Soprano built up over years into a character we only know for two hours, Nivola rises to the film’s challenge. He’s the only one on either side of the camera to do so.
While Chase, Taylor and Konner figure out a way to give us a half-assed rundown of the gangster rise-and-fall we saw again and again in the series, they couldn’t figure out how to make that into any kind of satisfying film—let alone one worth its references to the gangster canon and let alone one that has anything at all to say about the race relations in Newark during its setting. It fails to stand on its own two legs, and it fails to be anything but a redundant supplement to the series. But don’t worry, if the unconventional ending of the show left you feeling unsatisfied, the movie’s is far worse.
Director: Alan Taylor
Writer: David Chase, Lawrence Konner
Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga
Release Date: October 1, 2021
Jacob Oller is the Movies Editor of Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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