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Non-Review Review: The Many Saints of Newark

The Sopranos was a groundbreaking piece of television that completely changed the rules of television as a medium, with a mob epic that was singularly suited to the opportunities and the constraints of its given medium. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Many Saints of Newark is that it at least reinforces how much of the success of The Sopranos was down to its existence of a television show. The Many Saints of Newark demonstrates that so many of the tricks that made The Sopranos so compelling when watched in thirteen-hour seasons become deeply frustrating when condensed to a two-hout movie.

The Many Saints of Newark is a fundamentally flawed film. The most charitable interpretation of the film is that it feels like an attempt to condense an entire season of television down to a cinematic narrative that clocks in at just under two hours. The Many Saints of Newark is a sprawling film, one that spans from the late sixties into the early seventies. It often doesn’t seem to have a singular driving plot, but instead a set of competing subplots that swirl and occasionally cohere around the lead character of Dickie Moltisanti. They gesture broadly at compelling thematic concerns, but without any real clarity or focus.

Clever Dickie.

The Many Saints of Newark hinges on the narrative trickery that made The Sopranos such a compelling watch. It has an expansive cast. There’s a recurring ambiguity about what any of this actually means and what parts of it will be actively important to the resolution of the story. The film is willing to spend extended periods focusing on vignettes involving tertiary supporting cast members, away from the nominal lead. The film’s ending is a very deliberate and pointed anticlimax, one that is very deliberately set up over the film’s runtime, but which still feels designed to confound audience expectations.

All of these elements worked on The Sopranos because the production team had enough room to explore and develop them. The show was dense enough and had enough narrative real estate that credited leads like Lorraine Bracco or Dominic Chianese could disappear for multiple episodes at a time, only to return at pivotal junctures. The show spent enough time developing its narrative threads that sudden curve balls that seemed to derail certain plots instead felt like satisfying and unexpected pay-offs from others. The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t have this luxury. It doesn’t seem expansive, just messy.

Family ties.

To be fair, The Many Saints of Newark is caught between two competing poles. It’s never entirely clear what the film is meant to be – or wants to be – about. The title of the film seems to apply to the character of Dickie Moltisanti, the father of Christopher Moltisanti from the television show. Dickie was something of a legend in New Jersey crime. The Sopranos is often a show about generational trauma and anxiety, and Christopher’s relationship to a father who exists primarily in the abstract was a driving force of that.

Dickie Moltisanti is a compelling lead character for this. Chase cast Alessandro Nivola as Dickie. Nivola is a hardworking actor who has been something of a critical favourite since the mid-nineties, but who has never really anchored a project at this level. Nivola is a compelling screen presence, and Dickie is an engaging lead character. He’s much more fashionable and stylish than the gangsters who populated The Sopranos, much more suave and assured. Appropriately enough, given the shift in format, with his sunglasses and tailored suits, Dickie feels like something of a gangster superstar.

However, The Many Saints of Newark never entirely commits to the idea that this is the story of Dickie Moltisanti. Instead, the character of Tony Soprano exerts a strange gravity on the narrative. After all, the casting of Michael Gandolfini in the role that belonged to his father has generated considerable press coverage. The posters are built around Tony rather than Dickie, asking, “Who Made Tony Soprano?” Voiceover from James Gandolfini opens the first trailer, talking about how gangsters used to be “brought up to follow a code.”

Tony dominates the narrative, even during the long stretches when he is absent. The film is narrated by Christopher Moltisanti, from beyond the grave. In a decision that admittedly fits with the character, Christopher is obsessed with Tony, taking every opportunity to remind the audience of Tony’s importance and Tony’s position in the narrative. The film’s first half takes place during Tony’s childhood, and the character is of marginal importance. However, with a time jump at the midpoint, Tony suddenly becomes the movie’s co-lead, in a way that the film can’t entirely support.

All the best mobsters have daddy issues.

The Sopranos had a volatile relationship with nostalgia. In Remember When, Tony chastised his associate Paulie that “remember when…” was “the lowest form of conversation.” Much of the show was built around Tony’s nostalgia for a certain type of masculine ideal – “the strong, silent type” or “whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” – only to brutally subvert that by revealing that the past was nowhere near as romantic. The first season of The Sopranos pivots around Tony’s mother and uncle, survivors of that old nostalgic era, plotting to murder him. His uncle is later ravaged by dementia, lost in the past, and eventually shoots Tony.

Much of The Sopranos is about confronting the lie at the heart of nostalgia, deconstructing the romantic ideal that the past was always better. Tony is repeatedly frustrated by “the feeling that he came in at the end” and that “the best is over.” However, much of the show is given over to exploring the reality that Tony has over-romanticised and mythologised the past. Tony has to confront the fact this father was not perfect. The show has a recurring fascination with the legacy and memory of John F. Kennedy, and it’s perhaps notable that even The Many Saints of Newark begins several years after the assassination.

This is one of the central tensions of The Many Saints of Newark. While the stuff involving Dickie aggressively deconstructs the nostalgic and romantic ideal of “old-fashioned” gangsters, the sequences involving Tony frequently peddle in nostalgia for The Sopranos itself. Many of the sequences involving the Soprano family feel like digressions into “the lowest form of conversation.” There are multiple scenes that exist largely to unironically play out nostalgic stories that were told during the initial run of The Sopranos, moments that feel as pandering as the fanservice in any big budget blockbuster.

The audience gets to see the car ride with Johnny Boy and Livia Soprano that Janice talked about in Soprano Home Movies. The film’s closing moments line up neatly enough with the details of events outlined by Christopher in For All Debts Public and Private. There are other very overt references and shoutouts. Tony steals the answers to a test in school, like his son A.J. will do in Army of One. There are references to Tony’s coach from The Test Dream. Just like the start of Whoever Did This, there is a scene where Junior Soprano embarrasses himself by falling down the steps at a public function.

Sugar rush.

To be fair, bringing back The Sopranos was always going to involve a certain amount of fanservice. After all, that’s part of the inherent appeal of projects like El Camino or Deadwood: The Movie. However, there’s something very excessive in how The Many Saints of Newark goes out of its way to saturate a subplot with all of this nostalgia that adds very little to the actual unfolding narrative, and works at odds with the show’s contempt for this sort of nostalgic remembrances. This is a film where Johnny Boy’s casual allusion to “Tony B” is intended to trigger nostalgia for Steve Buscemi’s role on the show.

There are points where it seems like Sopranos creator David Chase is aggressively baiting his audience. After all, Chase has a notoriously confrontational relationship with viewers – extended stretches of The Sopranos are built around withholding what audiences think they want or even chastising them for wanting what they want. If one were feeling exceedingly generous to The Many Saints of Newark, the film could be read as intentional self-parody of this sort of fan service. Think of it like “Sopranos Babies.”

This is perhaps the only way to explain the film’s weird characterisation of many of Tony’s contemporaries. Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, Peter Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri and Syilvio Dante all appear in prominent supporting roles, looking like they stepped out of a Saturday Night Live sketch about The Sopranos. This is particularly egregious with the casting of John Magaro as Silvio. Magaro was the lead in Not Fade Away, Chase’s much anticipated (and coldly commercially received) theatrical follow-up to The Sopranos, and so there’s some interesting continuity of talent there.

However, Magaro isn’t giving a performance in The Many Saints of Newark. He’s doing a bad impression. It is deliberately and aggressively exaggerated. It is as close to Steve Van Zandt’s performance as Silvio’s repeated Godfather references are to Al Pacino. It’s a performance that derails the entire movie, even in a supporting role. It’s hard to imagine that this is entirely accidental. There’s a weird imbalance in all of this nostalgia and fanservice, and it’s never entirely clear how the movie wants to pitch itself. How ironic and how self-aware is this? Where, exactly, is the joke? More to the point, who is it on?

Getting the gang together.

The Dickie Moltisanti stuff is more interesting, at least conceptually. There are still some fundamental problems with the movie’s handling of Dickie as a character in his own right. Much of this is down to how the movie slips away from Dickie once the time skip happens and Tony becomes a co-lead. Part of it is also down to how the movie chooses to resolve the character’s arc. This is a tricky topic to discuss, given that this naturally involves the ending of the movie. So it might be best to keep it vague.

One of the big central plot threads in The Many Saints of Newark concerns a simmering gang war between the Italian American and African American mobs. Leslie Odom Jr. is cast as Harold McBrayer, an up-and-coming black gangster who does a lot of Dickie’s legwork. However, looking at the changing United States in the sixties, McBrayer decides to stake his own claim. This throws Dickie and McBrayer into conflict, and it frequently seems like only one of the two men will be left standing by the end of the movie.

However, in its final moments, The Many Saints of Newark takes a sharp swerve. The gang war plot is quietly resolved. It turns out that Dickie has other problems to worry about. These problems are set up relatively quietly but consistently in a series of short scenes throughout the film that establish a tension and conflict that eventually pays off. It’s an approach that is very similar to how The Sopranos would typically resolve its plots about gang warfare and violence, pushing the audience to anticipate a brutally violent showdown before swerving sharply in another direction.

The first season of The Sopranos was a fairly conventional mob story, with Tony surviving an attempted murder by his uncle and mother. However, later seasons would often set up these sorts of epic conflicts, only to avoid them. In the second season, Richie Aprile looks to be planning to move on Tony Soprano, only to wind up murdered by Janice Soprano in the season’s penultimate episode following an incident of domestic abuse. The fifth season pushes New Jersey and New York to the brink of war, only for Tony to sacrifice his cousin to secure an uneasy peace.

Soprano Home Movie.

The Many Saints of Newark is clearly aiming to replicate that sort of plot structure within a two hour film. It’s commendable in the sense of remaining true to the original television series, but those twists only really worked because they arrived at the culmination of thirteen-hour seasons. After all, the audience had spent half-a-season watching Richie plot against Tony, but they’d also spent half-a-season watching Richie and Janice reconnect. The audience had spent half-a-season focusing on civil war in the New York community, but also half-a-season of watching Tony grow increasingly impatient with his cousin.

There is simply no room for that sort of plotting in a two-hour movie like The Many Saints of Newark, especially one that has so much else going on around it. To credit Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner, the twist is signposted. However, the scenes signposting the twist stick out like a sore thumb, because they don’t really serve any other narrative or thematic purpose but to set up a third act swerve. As a result, the whole thing feels frustrating an undercooked. (It doesn’t help that the subplot involves one of the most compelling characters in The Sopranos, and reducing them to a plot function feels like a disservice.)

Still, allowing for these fundamental problems with The Many Saints of Newark, there are interesting elements within the movie itself. Most mobster stories are built around a very Catholic worldview, befitting the communities in which they are set. In The Sopranos, the characters are constantly confronted with the possibility that they might go to hell. Father Phil Intintola is a major recurring character on the show. Even within The Many Saints of Newark, an early sequence is built around Janice’s Confirmation. Chris’ narration talks about how Tony would eventually consign his soul to hell.

However, despite these cues, The Many Saints of Newark suggests a slightly different theological outlook. So much of The Many Saints of Newark deliberately and aggressively echoes The Sopranos that it suggests something closer to a cycle of eternal return. Characters seem to be trapped in repeating loops, doomed to repeat and reiterate the same mistakes over and over again, passing them down from one generation to the next. After all, the basic premise of The Many Saints of Newark is built around Dickie mentoring Tony, which can only fail. This sets up Tony’s similarly failed mentoring of Christopher in The Sopranos.

Pulling it up on continuity.

After all, The Many Saints of Newark begins at the end. It opens on a graveyard. It begins with Christopher narrating events from the afterlife, looking back to the events of his own early life. At various points in the film, Dickie consults with his incarcerated uncle Sal, who has used his time in prison to become more reflective and contemplative. He shares a lesson that he learned from the Buddhists locked up with him, “Pain comes from always wanting things.”

Reincarnation is something of a minor recurring theme in The Many Saints of Newark. Following the passing of his own father, Dickie visits his father’s twin brother in prison. Both are played by Ray Liotta, as if suggesting that they are perhaps one and the same. Baby Christopher consistently cries any time he’s near his older cousin Tony. An older relative asserts that “some babies, when they come into the world, know all kinds of things from the other side.” It seems to imply that maybe Christopher could remember that Tony murdered him, only to forget it again as he grew up.

There is something fasinating in all of this, an aggressively literalisation of one of the big recurring themes of The Sopranos: the idea that maybe things don’t really change. Tony Soprano is decades away from becoming the kind of mob figure that Dickie Moltisanti is, but it’s easy to draw parallels between the pair. Like Tony, Dickie is a man who eagerly cheats on his wife. Like Tony, Dickie is a person who does terrible things to the people around him, then claims to feel bad about it. Like Tony, Dickie repeatedly insists that he wants “to do a good deed”, but that’s ultimately self-serving.

Despite all the pandering fan service surrounding Tony, the more compelling nostalgic elements of The Many Saints of Newark are those built around Dickie. Those echoes are just a little more abstract. Dickie  repeatedly visits Sal in prison and the two talk about Dickie’s inner life, prefiguring Tony’s later visits to therapy. The casting of Ray Liotta, the other lead of Goodfellas, is sly and knowing. Similarly, The Many Saints of Newark trades heavily on the water imagery that permeated The Sopranos: the idea of the ocean as a space that swallows the sins of these men, but also the eternity on which they might be judged.

Brothers at arms.

There is something darkly amusing in watching a story featuring these characters set against the turbulent political and social backdrop of the late sixties, as American society was going through a revolution. Much like the characters on The Sopranos seemed oblivious to reports of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq in the show’s later seasons, the characters in The Many Saints of Newark are largely oblivious to the civil rights movement and Vietnam. At one point, Dickie finds protestors outside a local police station hilarious, until a flying brick dents his convertable and smashes his head, at which point it becomes personal.

Chase makes a point to return to some of the core themes of The Sopranos, in a very direct and overt manner. Indeed, The Many Saints of Newark doubles down on the psychological subtext of The Sopranos, particularly the Oedipal anxieties that drove the show. The movie’s inciting incident is the return of Dickie’s father – “Hollywood Dick” – from Italy with a young new wife in tow. Dickie’s complicated feelings towards his young new stepmother and his overbearing father quickly reach boiling point, and set in motion the events that will drive so much of the movie. (There’s a telling rumination on the word “motherf&!ker.”)

Similarly, one of the major standouts among the returning characters is Livia Soprano, Tony’s overbearing mother. On The Sopranos, Livia was a monster. Chase has confess that if The Sopranos was a movie, it would have ended with Tony smothering his mother with a pillow. While Livia stuck around for several years, the production team had to work around the tragic passing of actress Nancy Marchand. As a result, the show never really got to pay off the relationship between Tony and Livia. It often had to use stand-in characters, like Gloria Trillo or Fran Felstein.

As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark is able to bring Livia Soprano back into focus, played by Vera Farmiga. Indeed, The Many Saints of Newark is able to underscore the Oedipal tensions that Melfi identified between Tony and his mother. It’s notable that, during an interview with a school guidance counsellor, Livia discovers that one of her son’s happiest memories came from when his father was in prison, when his mother climbed into bed beside him and “snuggled up tight.” Farmiga is great in the role, and it’s frustrating that so much of the Tony stuff in The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t focus on Livia.

Dickie-ing around.

That said, The Many Saints of Newark is perhaps most interesting when it’s referencing things that aren’t The Sopranos. After all, The Sopranos was an extraordinarily self-aware show. Tony’s therapist was played by Lorraine Bracco from Goodfellas, and his uncle was played by Dominic Chianese from The Godfather, Part II. The characters were obsessed with gangster movies, with Paulie even arranging a screening of The Godfather, Part II before taking a trip back to Italy. Many key scenes in The Sopranos drew from that well of mob movie iconography in interesting ways.

The Many Saints of Newark does something similar. The early scenes at Janice’s First Communion are obviously designed to mirror the big family celebrations that opened The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. Later on, at a funeral service, Tony watches the mobsters assemble in another room through an open door in an obvious homage to the closing scenes of The Godfather. Notable, the doors don’t close. Much of The Many Saints of Newark finds characters standing in or staring through doorways, as if standing on a threshold. There’s a torture sequence that recalls a notorious similar scene in Casino.

However, the most interesting cinematic parallel is an extended sojourn to Atlantic City towards the climax, involving Dickie and his mistress. Atlantic City has always existed as an external space for The Sopranos, often embodying a romantic and nostalic past. Tony’s food poisoned dreams took him back to the boardwalk in Funhouse. He considered exiling Vito to Atlantic City in Cold Stones as a way of dealing with that particular problem. It’s notable that Sopranos writer Terrence Winter followed up his work on the show with the period mob drama Boardwalk Empire, set in the nostalgic past of Atlantic City.

Dickie’s trip to Atlantic City feels very much like an homage to Once Upon a Time in America. He and his mistress eat dinner together in a lavish hotel. The restaurant is empty, as if implying that Dickie bought it all out for a private dinner. Naturally, like Once Upon a Time in America, this romantic fantasy of mob opulance swells to a horrific act of violence. It’s one of the most engaging and unsettling sequences in the film, and it has only the most abstract ties to the mythology of The Sopranos. Perhaps the rest of the movie would be better if it adopted a similar approach.

“You know, the drill?”

There are admittedly pleasures to be found in the prequel setting of The Many Saints of Newark. Most notably, it’s interesting to tell a story in which Johnny Boy Soprano exists as more than just a romantic ideal to his son. The Sopranos consistently hinted – and eventually outright stated – that Johnny Soprano was a more complicated figure than Tony could admit, but he was still largely defined by his absence. The audience got to see Livia in all her grotesquery, while Johnny Boy was an object consigned to memory.

So it’s interesting to get to see Johnny Boy as a living and breathing character. Jon Beranthal is good in the role, capable of playing the charisma that the character requires while also portraying a much more volatile patriarch. The Many Saints of Newark captures an interesting snapshot of the Sopranos marriage, and illustrates that Tony was not entirely a product of his mother’s manipulation and scheming. Johnny Boy wasn’t an innocent victim in that toxic domestic environment, but instead an active participant.

It’s in those small moments with Johnny Boy that The Many Saints of Newark comes closest to really justifying its prequel setting, in making an argument for why the audience needed to see this chapter of Tony’s life. It’s also the aspect of the movie that feels closest to the way that The Sopranos would deconstruct and criticise its characters’ nostalgia. So much of The Many Saints of Newark seems designed to pander to viewers who want more Silvio or Paulie in their lives, it’s refreshing that Johnny Boy actually feels like a real character in the few moments that he appears on screen.

There are admittedly other smaller fannish pleasures to be found in The Many Saints of Newark. Corey Stoll is very good as a young version of Uncle Junior, who seems perpetually uncomfortable when trying to win over the people around him. When Dickie charmingly declares that Livia looks “like a million dollars”, Junior interjects with “… and not Mexican dollars either!”, prompting Livia to wonder what he is talking about. When Junior tries to connect with Tony as a teenager, he suggests that the two of them go outside and play ball in the rain. It’s the kind of awkward embarassment-based comedy that the show was always good at.

Taking his shot.

There are also smaller and charming in-jokes. Many fans have noticed that eggs are a recurring harbinger of death in the world of The Sopranos, much like oranges in The Godfather. As a prequel and perhaps tying into that theme of repetition and reincarnation, The Many Saints of Newark instead suggests that birds might be the real harbingers of death. “A bird would never fly into a garage to announce a death,” Livia confidently assures her children at a funeral service. “Now, a house? That’s a different story.”

Perhaps appropriately, then, The Many Saints of Newark feels like a curate’s egg. There are lots of interesting and compelling ideas and images buried within it, but it simply doesn’t work as a feature film. It’s interesting to wonder whether there was ever a longer cut of the movie; after all, many of the movies from which it is drawing ran well over two hours. However, perhaps the problem is more fundamental than that. The Sopranos was groundbreaking as a television series, but maybe it just doesn’t work as a film.

2 Responses

  1. The most intelligent review of this I’ve found . Most don’t even notice that Liotta is playing two roles , being beaten to death on a steering wheel and then set on fire should be a clue that it can’t be the same person in prison

    Also they go to the trouble of a scene with the Last Poets yet nobody picks up on that . Not even any credits . The whole riot scenario was shot so clean , no sense of the dirty grimness . Disney does a riot 🤷🏼

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