Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Fall From Grace

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The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel movie to the long-running and hugely popular HBO series “The Sopranos”. The show captured the zeitgeist. It grabbed our imaginations because of the talent and because it was part of a new wave of television that would go on to be knighted “prestige”. Sadly, The Many Saints of Newark, while having flashes of genius and pathos of the series, comes off as largely confused and rambling.

Alan Taylor’s Saints of Newark isn’t a prequel, and it’s not fan fiction. Instead, it’s something altogether different, and that may be the cause for the disconnect. You see, the story, written by series creator David Chase, and show writer Lawrence Konner, is actually the infamous screenplay by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli).

many saints of newark
Left to Right: Billy Magnussen, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, and Alessandro Nivola

So, the answer to the question of whether or not if you’ve never watched an episode of The Sopranos should you see this movie is a resounding why bother. The film even opens up with Christopher narrating from beyond the grave, Kramer Morgenthau’s camera floating through the tombstones as voices from the past call out to have their stories told.

In a way, The Many Saints of Newark is true to the heart of “The Sopranos,” these are bad people incapable of being honest with themselves. The writer David Chase reportedly told Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dickie, Christoper’s dad and Tony’s (Michael Gandolfini) favorite Uncle, not to pay attention to anything the characters said about Dickie in the show. “They’re all liars,” Chase said.

“The Sopranos” was a show filled with unreliable narrators. It makes sense that a movie with these same characters would be as dubious with the truth as its predecessor. Not only are these people liars, but Christopher is framing all of this in Moltisanti’s first screenplay, and so it is riddled with cliches while also being a tad messy. How much enjoyment you get from this depends on how in the bag you are in this whole experiment.

Taylor, whose luck has always been better in television than the movies, struggles to bring it to life. Unlike the show, again, this is Christopher’s screenplay, so there will be differences; we never get inside any of the character’s heads. There’s a lack of abstract and surrealism that the show was so famous for. But that’s because the narrative framing precludes that from being possible.

Yet, The Saints of Newark find other ways. For example, Chase and Konner explore the latent white supremacy of the Sopranos and the Moltisanti, as well as the sweeping violent misogyny. Of course, the show does this as well, but since this is all swirling from Christopher’s imagination, it’s fascinating how seemingly self-aware he is and isn’t. For example, when Dickie confronts his father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), for beating his new bride Joanne (Gabriella Piazza), we learn that Hollywood used to beat Dickie’s mother as well.

many saints of newark
The guys relax in The Many Saints of Newark

Dickie’s violent outburst in defense of his new stepmother is at odds with Dickie’s actions towards Joanne towards the end of the film. Actions that are brutal and haunting and contradict his self-righteous sermon. But again, “They’re all liars.”

The movie begins just before the Newark 1967 Newark riots, as the crime family looks on, nonplussed by how Black Americans are reacting. Chase got a lot of mileage in “The Sopranos” by showing how the wiseguys would cite anti-Italian bigotry whenever they felt affronted but refused to acknowledge the blatant racism in their actions and words. It was a cloak they used to protect themselves, to protect their whiteness. However, Taylor, Chase, and Konner peel back the implications. The civil rights movement unfolds before their eyes as they watch contemptuously and disbelievingly.

Unlike the show, Chase and Konner, via Christopher, allow the Black characters more agency than they had on the show by design. For example, Leslie Odom, Jr., plays Harold McBrayer, an associate of Dickie’s, soon finds himself dissatisfied with taking orders, money, and gruff from the white crime family. Odom’s Harold is not a good man, however. After all, this is a man who walks out of a civil rights meeting energized and inspired to start his own numbers organization in Newark. 

Still, Harold seems more clear-eyed, more pragmatic than the violent whirlwind of the Sopranos and Moltisantis. As a Black man, Harold has actual grievances and has less room to brush against the law, unlike his white counterparts. Later in the film, we see him with his son, and unlike the others, Harold seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with his son.

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Leslie Odom, Jr. as Harold

As The Saints of Newark goes, Nivola’s Dickie seems not to measure up to how he is remembered in the show. But even more, it becomes apparent that Christopher hasn’t written about his father so much as written himself as his father. Moreover, while not Christopher, Nivola seems to be troubled by his sins, though not so much that he confesses them or stops committing them. It all comes to a head when he visits his father’s brother in jail to tell him of his death, and lo and behold, Salvatore Moltisanti is the spitting image of Hollywood Dick.

The scenes between Dickie and Salvatore are some of the best. They mirror the scenes between Dr. Melfi and Tony from the series. Only here, it’s the incarcerated Sally who plays the role of the ever listening ear. The fact that Dickie is talking to a man who resembles his father, who he murdered, and asking for advice while also acting as a cipher for Christopher is the type of layered storytelling that afterward leaves you reeling. However, while you’re watching it, you’re just enjoying the interplay between Nivola and Liotta.

Liotta, who plays two men so effortlessly, it’s a reminder of what a tremendous actor he is. His Hollywood Dick is a bloviating man-child who acts on his every impulse. Salvatore, however, seems almost zen-like. He seems to have come to peace with his lot. But, Zen or not, he is fascinated by the self-denial Dickie seems to be living in.

But the one thing most people will want to know more than anything I’ve talked about is Michael Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano; a role played by his father. He’s great, better than great. Gandolfini is so good it’s easy to overlook how good the performance is.

It’s not about the mannerisms or the speech patterns but the way he smiles and the look of loss and hunger for acceptance in his eyes. Livia (Vera Farmiga) and Johnny (Jon Bernthal) are terrible parents but seeing how they raise Tony; we understand how he and Carmilla only continued the cycle with their own kids.

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Micahel Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

While I applaud these meta-narratives, callbacks, and inside jokes, The Many Saints of Newark has one fatal flaw. Christopher Moltisanti isn’t that good of a writer. However, I laughed at how Chase, Konner, and Christoper walk the thin line of knowing exaggeration with Silvo (John Magaro) and Paulie (Billy Magnussen). But halfway through, I began looking at the time.

The Many Saints of Newark may be Christopher’s screenplay, but the visual and pacing are all Taylor. Taylor has moments of brilliance, such as a scene involving Johnny and Livia arguing in a car that ends with a gun going off. But the show’s visual flair that made it so electrifying is gone, the tension that percolates every episode so magnetic is sapped of any reason to care.

Taylor has taken Morgenthau’s camera and made a movie you’d expect to see on television. Instead, the Many Saints of Newark is a movie that is visually, by itself and comparatively, to the show, dull. There’s no life to the framing. Instead, it often feels like Taylor is struggling to develop a way to get the sprawling crime family into one frame.

The movie’s last line is haunting perfection, and was the movie any better may be a contender for one of the great final lines of the year. I was disappointed by the film and even more the inelegant action, but afterward, I find myself mulling over parts of it.  The Many Saints of Newark isn’t that engrossing to so easily forgive. On the other hand, there’s too much interesting work being played out here for me to call the movie terrible.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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