The Many Saints of Newark Review
While the storytelling objectives of “The Many Saints of Newark” are noble, the expectations that the project is expected to meet are a jumble that screams impossibility. Yes, “A ‘Sopranos’ Story” is the title of this film. It’s a prequel to the landmark television series set in 1967 and the early 1970s that has to serve the purpose of establishing the characters that fans of the series know and, strangely enough, love. But it must also stand alone as a gripping story about family, loyalty, and criminality, particularly of the Italian-American gangster sort. Beyond that, this film has another goal: to convey something substantial about racial relations and Black crime in the context of the late 1960s urban violence wave that shook the country, with Newark being one of the hardest hit cities.
The film, directed by Alan Taylor and based on a scenario by “Sopranos” boss David Chase and Lawrence Konner, is two hours of reach beyond grasp, a tangle of moments that frequently simply toggle between the aggravating and repellant.
The film begins with an intriguing crane image of a cemetery that transitions into a dolly shot; the soundtrack features the voices of the dead on a gloomy afternoon. One voice begins to dominate: that of Christopher Moltisanti (voiced by Michael Imperioli from the series), who reflects on his life and its conclusion. He says plainly about a pivotal character in the series, “He choked me to death.” This might be seen as implying that you’ll find out why here. At least if you’re unfamiliar with the series.
If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll understand why. Or at the very least, you know it takes place in a world where “whys” might be ephemeral, transient, and shaky, in part because it’s a world populated with psychopaths, to put it mildly.
Is psychopathy a family trait? It’s difficult to say. Both Christopher’s father, Dickie Moltisanti, and “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti are boisterous, angry, and impulsive individuals with one or more screws loose. “Hollywood” arrives from Italy on a boat with a trophy wife, perhaps a third his age, who catches the younger Dickie’s eye, but one doesn’t make too much of it because one can’t really. Soon, we’ll get a look at a side of the family business: a numbers-running operation assisted and abetted by some African-American hustlers, the most prominent of whom is Harold, son of Leslie Odom, Jr. One figure in an African-American home shouts, “The numbers are the only method black folks has to get out of this sinkhole city,” in a depressing early example of the all-caps EXPOSITIONAL discourse. Thank you for the suggestion.
The expansiveness of “The Sopranos” allowed for more and more authorial detachment and acting complexity as the series progressed, developing in smarts and sophistication even before the first season ended. The audience was given the opportunity to take a step back and truly experience the humanity of the characters, which endured despite the heinous acts they routinely did. Tony creates ice cream sundaes for himself and A.J. near the end of the seventh episode, which is one of my favorite “Sopranos” moments. Aside from James Gandolfini’s superb acting, there’s a great sense of camaraderie and restfulness here that helps the viewer understand Tony has some connection to certain commendable ideas. For the time being. “Many Saints” doesn’t have any of that. While the film tries valiantly to demonstrate Dickie Moltisanti’s dualism, Alessandro Nivola’s acting in the part never quite gels enough to make such a notion ring true.
Dickie commits a heinous act in the first half-hour of the film, but then demonstrates genuine sincerity in his desire to do a “good deed” by bringing an outcast family member back into the fold, not by bringing him back into the fold (he’s in prison and unlikely to be released), but by providing him with some creature comforts. This character wants a Miles Davis phonograph record, which Dickie dutifully delivers. Along with other albums that aren’t quite right (Al Hirt, for example—”trumpet,” as Dickie points out.) This segment concludes with a mob-movie in-joke so ridiculous that you’ll wonder how the producers imagined their work would be taken seriously afterward. (Ray Liotta plays the imprisoned figure in a dual role—also he’s “Hollywood.”)
The flabbiness of the film, its haphazard bouncing from scene to scene, and its unwillingness to give any single moment any depth beyond its immediate impact, effectively vitiates the entire idea of Dickie’s purported mentorship of Tony Soprano. Stepping into his father’s shoes, Michael Gandolfini has remarkably expressive eyes and the correct bearing. If he can’t create a believable character, it’s because he hasn’t been given one to work with. Similarly, the film’s other A-list actors—Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, and Jon Bernthal, to name a few—find themselves in a similar Hobson’s Choice situation.
Do they send signals to the actors who play them in the future series, do they imbue the characters with their own personalities, do they do both, can they do both? It doesn’t really matter in the end. After gallons of blood are spilled—the representations of violence are frightening at times and comical at others, but they’re always more than enough—the film slows to a crawl and comes to an underwhelming halt, like a car that has jumped a guard post and crashed onto a grassy knoll.