Movie Review – The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

Woke up this morning, 3.5 readers.

BQB here with a review of the long awaited Sopranos prequel.

Being the fan of an HBO series is a lot like being the kid of an estranged father. When you were younger, Dear Old Dad was always around, and you loved every minute of it, from playing catch to riding all the rides at the carnival together. Ahh but alas, much like the showrunners, actors and everyone behind these shows, Dad got distracted by some shiny new thing and went off to chase it, leaving us wondering for years why we weren’t good enough for Pops to stick around.

And then…so many years later, when finally, we gave up, moved on, and accepted that we’ll never get any closure to the longstanding questions that loomed over our relationship, the Old Man returns, now as a geezer, asking for us to love him again, no questions asked, and we can’t help but think this is probably a desperate ploy to shake us down in one last cash grab because God knows, the up and coming next generation doesn’t give a crap about him.

In all seriousness though, if you were a sentient adult in the late 90s-early 2000s, you either watched this show religiously or heard all the yammering from the people who did. It essentially gave rise to the so-called new golden age of TV that we are experiencing today (though I wonder if it might be in decline as of late). When I was a young man, I watched the show and just thought it was funny there was a show on TV that showed a lot of boobs and butts and people saying and doing horrible things and certainly such taboo material would never be seen on NBC, so it felt like it was almost subversive to watch it. The rest of Hollywood took note and realized that cable was the way to go for long form series storytelling where the characters could be allowed to say and do much more naughtier things.

Alas, HBO has a tendency to cash in and cash out on these shows. Although there are some who think the Sopranos’ fade to black finale was brilliant (for those uninitiated, the show that posed a ton of questions about mobster Tony Soprano’s life – will he get killed by rivals? will he end up in jail? will his marriage fail? will his kids stand by him or realize he’s a scumbag and abandon him?) – decided to answer these questions with a non-answer, i.e. a do it yourself ending where the family goes to dinner at a restaurant, an ominous man goes to the bathroom, and maybe said individual comes out blasting or maybe he’s just a random diner who needed to take a dump. The choice is yours.

Personally, I was one of the many, many viewers who jumped up and smacked my TV, thinking a cable went loose at the worst possible moment.

Thus, I wasn’t surprised when Game of Thrones wowed us throughout the 2010s, only to rush through the last season. They did it with the Sopranos in the 00s and GOT in the 2010s. It’s the 2020s now and Home Box Office is due to give us the series of the decade that will leave us captivated in awe, only to one day decide that they’ve snatched up enough cash, that dumping more cash into the series is not cost effective, and to send us on our way with a lackluster rushed final season and lame finale.

Where was I? Oh right. Now that I got my rant out, let’s move on to the review.

There are so many reasons why it was a tragedy that James Gandolfini died young in his early fifties, but as a Sopranos fan, and looking at how Hollywood, thanks to streaming services, has become obsessed with bringing back old stuff, it makes me think that HBO might have finally ponied up the dough necessary to make a new Sopranos season, one that tells us where the New Jersey crime family is today and what happened after the fade to black moment. Such a show would probably bring so many fans to HBO Max that the service would time out, but alas, it was not meant to be.

Instead, veteran producer and great storyteller David Chase brings us a prequel, the Many Saints of Newark. Originally, I thought this title was a tongue in cheek way to refer to all the mobsters in young Tony Soprano’s life, but it actually is in reference to the name Moltisanti, fans remembering that Michael Imperioli’s Christopher was the tragic comic relief of the show, unable to free himself of his addictions, at war with himself over how he could win his Uncle Tony’s approval and how he could make enough money to strike out on his own.

The prequel movie focuses on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola finally getting the recognition he deserves so many years after humorously dining on Tiramisu as one half of Nic Cage’s villainous brother duo in the classic so bad it’s good sci-fi flick Face/Off).

Dick and young Tony Soprano (played aptly by James Gandolfini’s son Michael, in many respects, the face, the voice, the gestures, you are convinced this is young Tony) have a relationship similar to that of Tony and Christopher in the show. Dickie is a rising star in the New Jersey mob. Young Tony thinks his uncle is pretty cool, but is too young to understand that the car, the clothes, the babes, all the things that make Dickie cool come from blood money.

The film focuses on a friendship between Dickie and African-American gangster Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) The 1960s, as students of history know, were a turbulent time, when civil rights were demanded and injustices often led to riots and violent, civil unrest. In all walks of life and professions, African Americans stood up and demanded more and well, though crime isn’t exactly a noble profession by any means, McBrayer demands more, pushing away from his role as Dickie’s henchman and striking out in illegal moneymaking schemes of his own, which eventually sets Dickie and Harold on a path to war.

To the movie’s credit (or discredit, whatever your opinion may be) it revels in fan service, fan service, and more fan service. We see young versions of the show’s characters. Though these performances are largely caricatures, one might argue that the whole series was one great big caricature of the mob to begin with. At any rate, we see a youthful Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) worried about getting blood on his suit and a spry Big Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola) before he digged too deep into the lasagna tray. We see a young Silvio (John Magaro) combatting hair loss with a variety of wigs. We see characters say and do things that were talked about in the series.

You might have to re-watch it to get some of the jokes and nods. The casual fan will still enjoy it, though it takes a re-watch to truly sit in anticipation of Corey Stall’s youthful rendition of Uncle Junior, just waiting for him to harangue Young Tony with his constant criticism of how Tony “doesn’t have the makings of a Varsity Athlete.”

Vera Farmiga, who I admit I have a longstanding crush on ever since her turn in The Departed) doesn’t just steal the show as a young version of Tony’s overbearing, aggressively passive-aggressive mother who would go on to force middle-aged Tony to spend a mint on psychotherapy with Dr. Melfi. It mad me sad to see that the beautiful Farmiga had to undergo all kinds of makeup to ugly her up and one might say she’s doing a caricature of the incomparable Nancy Marchand, the late actress who played Tony’s elderly mother in the series. At any rate, those of us who have gone through the not so fun experience of having parents who get old, who demand that we take over and just handle everything for them because they are too old to handle it now, yet they still want to be in charge because damn it, they’ve got more years than you do, can relate to Tony’s suffering. All in all, it’s equally eerie and funny when we sit in anticipation of Farmiga’s rendition of Livia’s “Oh, poor you!”

STATUS: Shelf-worthy. The movie has its moments. Lots of action. Plot twists. In many ways it does feel like an extended Sopranos episode, though with a star studded cast of actors and actresses who lend their talents to it largely because they probably wanted to be attached to such a well known property. Sidenote: Ray Liotta does an interesting turn as twin brothers, the gross old pervy Moltisanti patriarch who marries a younger woman and the twin brother who went to jail as a young man but somehow found wisdom wasting his life away in jail, wisdom he can never use to benefit himself but can impart it to Dickie if he’ll listen.

It’s worth a watch for fans, though in many ways, it does feel like we’re that 40-year old adult child who finally figured out how to move on from our beloved estranged father/series who left us too soon because they felt the time and resources were better spent on other things (like the middle aged dad who abandons his kids and buys a Ferrari and chases 20 something babes, showrunners and actors often leave popular series to chase after movie roles that rarely are as memorable as their series) and now the show has come back to us as a withered old 70 year old man, begging to take us to Coney Island and we have to decide whether we want to go because we’ll never get another chance to go or say no thanks, because we aren’t kids anymore and we can buy popcorn and cotton candy and ride tickets on our own, so no thanks, Pops. We hope those hot babes and Ferraris were worth it.

Double sidnote: As I watch the trailer, I can see how a viewer might be tricked into thinking this show is very Tony centric. Unfortunately, it’s all Dickie with occasional Tony. Going into it, I thought maybe we’d see Young Tony being called on to commit crimes, perhaps he wanted to steer clear of the crooked life, only for some big reason that draws him into it. It’s more a focus on the life of Dicki Moltisanti with a meditation on him not being sure how to help his nephew in his formative years, debating on whether he should be a bigger part of his life because the kid needs an adult to advise him, or to steer clear because the more involved he is in the kid’s life, the more he might pick up his uncle’s bad habits.

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