David Chase’s long anticipated The Many Saints of Newark was recently released both in theaters and on HBO Max. Is this meandering movie worth your time or money?
We live in a time when every character needs an origin story and every franchise needs a prequel. Whether this need is based on actual audience demand or if it’s a demand created by the studios is an argument for another day. Whatever the reason here we are with David Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel and an origin story to Chase’s hit series The Sopranos.
It’s often said in the football world, American football to be clear, when a team isn’t winning because either the defense or offense can’t work together that the team has an “identity problem.” A team with a identity problem doesn’t know what it’s doing or how it’s going to achieve its goal of a winning season. The Many Saints of Newark is a movie with an identity problem. It doesn’t know what it wants to do or how it’s going to get to the end.
One poster for the movie hints that Dickie Moltisanti is the man “who made Tony Soprano.” Another blurb for the movie says it’s about “the formative years of young Tony Soprano.” We know who Tony Soprano becomes and what eventually happens to him later in life, however, there’s nothing presented in The Many Saints of Newark that would indicate that Moltisanti created Tony Soprano. This is mainly due to the fact that the movie is all over the place in terms of story.
The movie never becomes about how Tony Soprano the child becomes Tony Soprano the mafia boss of Newark. We’re told a couple of times that Tony idolizes Dickie but we’re never shown how. Livia, Tony’s mother, lets the audience know that Moltisanti is the only person Tony will listen to. Later in the movie Silvio Dante comes out and directly tells Dickie “the kids idolizes you.” Telling the audience something is not the same as showing. Showing examples of a thing is more powerful and conveys more meaning that simply telling the audience. Tony’s formative years under Dickie Moltisanti can be boiled down to stealing an ice cream truck.
NOT AN ORIGIN STORY
The movie is almost at the half way point when we see a teenage Tony Soprano. Until then and after The Many Saints of Newark is a movie about Dickie Moltisanti. Even as a movie about Dickie Moltisanti The Many Saints of Newark is an uninspired affair. It feels like Chase and the screenwriter (Lawrence Konnor) took scenes from other gangster movies and tried to create a new movie around those scenes. As a reworked gangster movie it hits notes that every other gangster movie before it has hit. But because it’s a generic gangster movie nothing new is presented and everything, for the most part, is predictable.
If there is a character in the movie that can be traced to the Tony Soprano in the series it’s his father Johnny Soprano, played by Jon Berthal (The Punisher). In the movie Johnny’s main function is to yell, scream, tell his daughter to change her clothes, and to complain that his brother and wife let African-Americans move into the neighborhood. Johnny is the stereotypical Italian gangster, but the seeds are planted for how he will affect both his son’s and daughter’s later life.
The summer of 1967 was a pivotal year in the Civil Rights Movement. Riots occurred in almost every major American city. The end result of what historians have called The Long Hot Summer of 1967 was sweeping legislation to combat racism in America. Chase has seen fit to weave the riot in Newark into the already erratic story.
The initial riot is used as a device to cover Dickie’s murder of his father. It’s also used as a device to introduce Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami). Harold, a numbers runner for Dickie, uses the riot as a means to create his own numbers game in Newark. As Harold’s wife says running numbers is the only way they’re “getting out of here.” “Getting out of here” is getting out of the projects and leaving the run down house they live in.
The audience is teased with the idea that race relations between African-Americans and Italian-Americans will play an important role in the movie. However, the idea is dismissed as soon it’s brought to the audience’s attention. The under developed plot line of a gang war between Dickie’s and Harold’s crew is left to fizzle out. It’s not until the end credits we see Harold and his family moving into a new home much to the chagrin of the white neighbors that we remember where Harold’s story. We are only left to assume Harold’s number running racket is a success.
WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?
The Many Saints of Newark is chalk full of scenes that make no sense or add little to the movie. One scene in particular is a scene of Johnny Soprano shooting his wife in the head. It’s a scene that comes out of nowhere and the results are not what the audience expects. There is no blood and no brains are splattered in the manner viewers of The Sopranos series have come to expect.
It’s not a dream sequence. The Many Saints of Newark is not the movie that uses dream sequences to illustrate the inner thoughts of its characters. Plus, Dickie and his wife, whose name you will hear once and will forget as she is pushed further and further into the background of the movie, react to the shot. We’re to assume that a gangster like Johnny Soprano carries a gun loaded with blanks so he can shoot his wife without actually killing her.
WHO ARE THE MANY SAINTS?
Who are the many saints? Perhaps ‘saint’ is being used in an ironic way. The only time any resemblance of goodness is achieved is in dream sequences. And then it’s only in one dream Dickie Moltisanti has of coaching a blind baseball team. In his dream the parents declare him a saint. In his mind Dickie strives to be a better person. The conflict between being a good person and being a gangster is real. His break down at the end of the movie attests to his failures of being a good person.
Is one of the saints Salvatore Moltisanti? Salvotre, also played by Ray Liotta, is “Hollywood” Dick’s twin brother. Salvatore is a jazz aficionado spouting sage advice to Dickie, but by his own admission he’s a murder. He’s smart enough to know that prison is where he belong and smart enough to tell Dickie he should stay away from Tony.
The men in The Many Saints of Newark, like the men in countless gangster movies, cheat on their wives, beat the women in their lives, and kill indiscriminately. Most of these “saints” are cardboard cut out characters who are forgotten as soon as they’re introduced.
For everything The Many Saints of Newark fails at the casting of the actors was a stroke of brilliance. Instead of using de-aging CGI like The Irishman Chase cast actors who bore a resemblance to the older actors in The Sopranos. Using makeup, props, and good acting the process of creating doppelgangers is almost complete.
The casting of Michael Gandolfini, James Gandolfini’s real life son, as a young Tony Soprano will be hailed as a genius move. There’s no real argument that can be made against the casting. If anything, credit should be given to Gandolfini for deciding to take the role made iconic by his father. However, it’s the cast of familiar characters that surrounds Gandolfini where the movie stands out.
John Magaro (Overlord, First Cow) is spot on as Silvio Dante. The role was originally played by Steven Van Zandt. Silvio and his impersonation of Al Pacino in The Godfather III became one of the most popular characters in the original series. Margo has Van Zandt’s mannerisms and speech patterns down to a “T.” One can imagine him watching episodes of The Sopranos on repeat in order to nail the role. Unfortunately, we don’t see Margo as much as we should and the character becomes just another minor role.
Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) is the young Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother. Farmiga, with the help of a little makeup, easily passes for a young Nancy Marchand. Farmiga also captures the spitefulness and the scorn that would be directed towards Tony on a weekly basis in the series. Unfortunately, Livia’s hateful attitude cannot be a simple case of her being a bad human being. The screenwriter decided to make her attitude a case of a chemically imbalanced brain. What the series understood and the movie fails to address is that some people are just bad.
Junior Soprano was also a thorn in Tony’s side during the original series run. He also never turned down an opportunity to remind everyone how things use to be in his day. In The Many Saints of Newark we see how things used to be for Junior. Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) couldn’t look more like a young Junior without CGI, but more importantly he becomes the whiny, vindictive, pain in the ass we would all come to know and hate.
Samson Moeakiola as Pussy Bonpensiero is a dead ringer for a younger Vincent Pastore. Pastore played the doomed Pussy in the television series. However, there’s still the obligatory introduction for the uninitiated or for those who haven’t seen The Sopranos since it ended in 2007. The convenient introduction to a priest also sets up one of the many horrible lines of dialog found throughout the movie. Pussy, like so many of the other characters in the movie, doesn’t have a lot to do in the movie besides being set dressing.
Overall, The Many Saints of Newark feels like a two hour trailer to a Sopranos series we’ll never get to see. The movie fails to click on every imaginable level. The characters are cardboard cut outs of characters from other gangster movies. Even the character of Tony Soprano is under represented and under developed in his own “origin story.” The Many Saints of Newark will appeal to die hard fans of the original series, but for the casual movie goer it may be a chore to get through.