The Many Saints of Newark
Photo | HBO Films
An enthusiastic fan of the acclaimed TV show “The Sopranos” might have such high expectations for its film prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” that various super-fan quibbles could ruin a perfectly decent mob movie. The less you are trying to extract and align from this movie, the better. On the other hand, this is a two-hour Easter egg for the late, great television show.
I guess every cultural property has to sprawl into its own “cinematic universe” now. Duly, we must journey to New Jersey in the 1960s and meet Anthony Soprano as a little kid, in a story narrated by Christopher Moltisanti. Christopher appears as an infant in the movie; he was killed by his uncle Tony in one of the biggest events of the TV series. I will now describe a sequence from the film and your response to it will predict how you feel about the movie, probably.
As an infant, the doomed Christopher has an inherent, inexplicable dislike of the teenaged Tony. He cries every time Tony comes near him. About this phenomenon, an old lady relative remarks something like some babies bring knowledge from the other side; basically, Christopher has a sixth sense about Tony. Of course, viewers of the TV show know Tony eventually murders Christopher. If you think that is cool, you will probably appreciate this movie.
Do you want to see all the mobsters from “The Sopranos” younger? This, to me, is always one of the cheesier aspects of a “prequel,” a bit of a guilty pleasure. The relationship between the show and the movie is more of a fun novelty than a character exploration, and the film is most successful when it is free from lining up with the show.
One big talking point for the film is Michael Gandolfini, the son of the late James Gandolfini, portrays his father’s role as a teenager. He is not the focus of “The Many Saints of Newark,” though — a riveting performance by Alessandro Nivola as the formidable Dickie Moltisanti takes center stage. Young Tony worships Dickie, and we often see him through the lens of Tony’s idolatry. The idea is that Dickie’s influence ultimately won out over a conflicted young Tony, leading to the conflicted adult Tony we came to know.
Also fantastic is Ray Liotta as Dickie’s father, a really tough, unpleasant fellow who goes to the proverbial “old country” and brings back a gorgeous young woman (Michela De Rossi) to be his second wife. Through intensely oedipal circumstances that I won’t fully detail in the interest of spoilers, Liotta also plays his own twin brother. I find this incredibly silly and cheesy. Ray Liotta is wonderful, but he’s no Hayley Mills.
As a historical drama, this film has much to recommend. The Newark Riots of 1967, set off by police brutality against an African American cab driver, figure prominently, and power struggles surge between the existing Italian American mafia and would-be contenders for their power, led by former employee turned rival Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). The Dickie versus Harold rivalry turns extremely personal and leads to one of Dickie’s many fatal outbursts of rage. There is no shortage of sex, murder and drama in this dark tale.
If people don’t like “The Many Saints of Newark,” it must be because it failed to fulfill some “Sopranos”-related need. Because as a stand-alone film, it was perfectly successful. Alessandro Nivola is underrated and should star in more films — he was handsome and scary and he’s married to Emily Mortimer, which didn’t specifically figure into this, but which I mentally factor into my reaction to him. Vera Farmiga plays Tony’s mother, Livia, and the scenes between them give the film its deepest psychological insights, which is actually a pretty important part of the show. So, actually, this movie is pretty satisfying in that regard. I really don’t know why people are unsatisfied with it. Fan service is a losing battle.
Bring an open mind to “The Many Saints of Newark” and you are in for an exciting drama. The performances are overall excellent and, if you are a big fan of the original show, at least one moment at the very end will absolutely thrill you. And you deserve it since, ironically, the show boasts one of the most unsatisfying finales known to man. That level of bold narrative ambiguity is never achieved in “The Many Saints of Newark.” It cannot claim that state of originality and conviction, but it is certainly worth watching.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is now playing at all multiplex theaters.
New This Week:
“Halloween Kills”: Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the latest installment in this classic horror franchise and Anthony Micheal Hall is here too! All multiplex theaters.
“The Last Duel”: This is a tale of betrayal and vengeance set against the brutality of 14th-century France, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Hold on, that sounds great? All multiplex theaters, Nexus CInema Dining.
“I’m Your Man”: A scientist at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin is persuaded to participate in a study to get funding for her research. For three weeks, she must live with a humanoid robot (Dan Stevens) designed to be the perfect life partner for her. This is supposed to be amazing and it’s only playing for one week, so do not miss it. Crescent Theater.
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