It’s said that crime doesn’t pay but movies about crime seem to do very nicely. This may be the main reason why anyone would attempt a film based on a successful TV series such as The Sopranos. When viewers have spent weeks, months, even years in the company of favourite characters, the standard two hours of a feature film can feel like an inadequate postscript.
The stakes are exceptionally high when that series, which ran from 1999-2007, is widely regarded as one of the greatest TV events of all time. The Sopranosestablished HBO’s credentials as a maker of groundbreaking drama and helped attract viewers to the new cable networks. The taste for Mafia stories had already been seeded by movies such as The Godfather trilogy (1972-90) and Goodfellas(1990), but the groundbreaking series added elements of suburban soap opera, creating characters that were simultaneously exotic and familiar. James Gandolifini’s Tony Soprano may have been a powerful mob boss, but he was also a middle-aged family man beset with all the usual problems and anxieties.
The Sopranos was the first addictive mega-series that had us hanging out for each new episode, or sitting up all night binge-watching a whole season on disc.
Such an illustrious pedigree means The Many Saints of Newark – a play on the name “Moltisanti” – is both eagerly-awaited and doomed to disappoint. We want more of the Sopranos, but this movie, no matter how skifully done, was never going to be enough.
It’s not for want of trying. The script was written by David Chase, the creator of the original series, in collaboration with Lawrence Konner. The director is Alan Taylor, who helmed 9 episodes of The Sopranos, and seems to have been involved with most of the other big series, including Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, Mad Men and Deadwood.
The filmmakers have adopted that wellworn tactic, the prequel. The story begins in the early 1960s with the lead character this time being Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the father of Christopher Moltisanti, who was one of the TV mainstays. We’ll also meet the young Tony Soprano, who evolves from a sassy little boy into a dangerous, disaffected teen. The teenage Tony is played by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to his old man.
The movie tries to strike that familiar balance between scenes of domesticity and camaraderie, and outbursts of sudden, murderous violence. We’re never quite allowed to forget that the characters with whom we’ve grown close, are also thugs and killers.
There’s not a lot to like about Dickie’s father, Dick “Hollywood” Molisanti (Ray Liotta), who steps off the boat from Italy with a belligerent attitude and a new, young wife, Giuseppina (Michela de Rossi). Dad has old-fashioned ideas about women, believing they are useful as bedmates and punching bags. This is a sticking point with his son who is attracted to Giuseppinna and feels chivalrous. As the story progresses we can only be cynical about Dickie’s noble impulses as they invariably lead to carnage. Although he comes across as more intelligent and mature than his companions, Dickie is also a psychopath. It apparently runs in the family.
We catch glimpses of the gambling, robbery and protection rackets that constitute the family business but this generally goes on in the background. The emphasis is on close personal relationships that can quickly go sour. When Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) is sent to prison, Dickie becomes a mentor for his son, Tony, but can’t decide whether he should prepare his nephew to join the business, or keep him away from this life. Either way, Tony shows an early aptitude for crime.
The mob’s foot soldiers include black guys who are expected to heavy their own neighbourhood. One of them is Dickie’s trusted lieutenant and former schoolfriend, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who is inspired by the revolutionary race politics of the 60s to start his own rackets. This puts the African Americans on a collision course wth the Italians, fortuitously aligning the film with Hollywood’s current preoccupations.
In the TV series Tony spent a lot of time visiting his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. Dickie has his own version of the talking cure, visiting his uncle Sal (also played by Ray Liotta), who is in prison for murder. Imprisonment has made Sal reflective, allowing him to cultivate interests in Buddhism and jazz. Dickie seems to need him as a confessor and advisor, although he rarely tells Sal the truth.
One doesn’t expect a Hollywood ending from a gangster film, let alone a moral lesson, apart from the old adage about “he who lives by the sword…” The story throws up a set of strong plot lines but most of them end with an abrupt act of violence or are never satisfactorily resolved. The professionalism of the filmmakers is everywhere on display but it takes more than a brace of striking scenes to create a convincing overall impression.
How one feels about The Many Saints of Newark will largely depend on a personal response to its most violent moments, which are brutal enough to overshadow the rest of the narrative. The actors are excellent, including the young Michael Gandolfini, but when the lights go up there’s no sense that you’ve watched something of Shakespearean proportions, which is precisely what Francis Ford Coppola achieved with the first Godfather movie. This tale of the Moltisantis is consistently entertaining but it adds nothing new to the gangster genre, and this, alas, is a field from which we’ve come to expect marvels.
The Many Saints of Newark
Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Lawrence Konner, after characters created by David Chase
Starring Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Alexandra Intrator
USA, rated MA 15+, 120 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 November, 2021