Friday 24 September 2021

The damned: "The Many Saints of Newark"

One of the defining characteristics of HBO's landmark gangster saga The Sopranos was its stubborn refusal to give its audience what they may have thought they wanted from a TV show. The difficult men in the title of Brett Martin's 2013 study of modern televisual breakthroughs didn't solely refer to the problematic characters these series put on screen, but also those recalcitrant folk behind the camera, determined to shake the schedules of their usual pat certainties. You want clear-cut character arcs, a hint of redemption? No dice. A tidy ten-episode run year in year out? Forget about it. A neat ending tying everything in a bow? Vaffanculo. By going so decisively his own way, showrunner David Chase forged a path for the two decades of TV that followed: uncompromising success stories, shows that interrogated those audience desires (as Breaking Bad did, in frenetic passing), shows that drifted so far from what we want to watch that they barely survived a season. In the years since the show's open-ended finale, talk has persisted that there might someday be a final, conclusive Sopranos movie, perhaps along the lines of the recent, semi-miraculous Deadwood wrap-up, brought in by another Difficult David (Milch) at astronomical long odds. The death of James Gandolfini in 2013 rendered that all but an impossibility - who could ever replace him? - but there now emerges a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, which is as close as Chase (who writes and produces, with Alan Taylor directing) has got to the newly all-pervasive idea of fan service, for better and worse.

Even here, some of the old perversity remains. For starters, Saints is only tangentially about Tony, a mere pup (played by William Ludwig) in the film's 1967 setting, fleetingly glimpsed initiating an innocent-seeming junior-high numbers racket, but more generally regarded as a future held in the balance for two hours. The focus instead switches to the titular saints, the Moltisantis, at this time a more prominent clan within the New Jersey mob than Tony's own Sopranos. As introduced to us by the series' own Christopher M. (Michael Imperioli), narrating from beyond the grave with an understandable hint of grievance, the main players here are the tyrannical patriarch Aldo (Ray Liotta, an immediate point of connection to other mobs, other movies), his newly imported, considerably younger Italian beauty-queen wife Giuseppina (Michela de Rossi), and Aldo's conflicted, slightly cowering son Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), Christopher's dad, if you've been keeping up. The Oedipal struggle that shapes up over the first hour, which comes to a grisly head in a garage, mirrors certain aspects of the show; Chase's key theme is how, in organised crime as in the entertainment business, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Another would be that America has always had its divisions and faultlines. Beyond the Moltisantis, typical HBO-level craft is evident in the movie's richly detailed recreation of the Newark riots, via which the movie promises to extend the show's predominantly Italian-American universe. 

Many of the old names and faces are present, renewed and rejuvenated: Paulie Walnuts (a preening Billy Magnussen), Big Pussy (Samson Moeakiola), Silvio (John Magaro and hairpiece), plus an already ailing Junior (Corey Stoll) and his prototypically monstrous wife Livia (Vera Farmiga, bringing a resemblance to Edie Falco's Carmela that's fascinating in the context of Sopranos lore). Yet they're joined - sometimes pitched against - representatives of Newark's Black community, principally Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), around whom Dickie proves far more comfortable than his irascible peers. The series took domestic stability as its backdrop: it wondered how on earth a powerful man who seemed to have it all could be so fundamentally unhappy, thus identifying an emergent theme in American life (and its TV drama). The movie's backdrop, by contrast, is a city on fire, the kind of turbulence that often covers all manner of crimes (what's another broken window or burning building?) and which can't help but shape character. If Chase is interested in revisiting the myth of Tony Soprano here, it's with an eye to the role models this kid was presented with at a formative moment: not the greatest selection, all told, and it gets more ominous still in the 1970s-set second half, when Dickie - who's been established beyond any doubt as a killer - takes the teenage Tony (now played by Michael Gandolfini, son of James) under his wing. So the film adds to our knowledge, albeit indirectly; it's a TV-derived movie that demands its viewers remain switched on, in a way multiplex movies generally don't. And yet it pains me to report that The Many Saints of Newark doesn't quite grip as drama, in part because it doesn't quite work as a movie.

Taylor, a series regular, ensures the action would tessellate seamlessly with any flashback within the show: Satriale's is much as we left it, and Douglas Aibel's superlative casting ensures everybody looks and sounds the part, from Young Gandolfini (who has his father's adenoidal burr) to the doddery waiter with one line at Dickie's club. Yet I spent much of Saints weighing up whether it was riffing playfully on the idea of conservatism, or simply struggling within the limitations of a studio system that's been gamed specifically to give the audience more of the same. There's no doubt that, as in the series, Chase sees and abhors his made men's conservatism, horrified as they are by their daughters' hiphuggers and the Black folks moving in next door. Organised crime here equals white power, a means of keeping an iron grip on the status quo. Yet the film keeps succumbing to a creative conservatism: it observes the old ways, senses how damaging they can be, and falls right back into them all the same. (Maybe we needed Jennifer Melfi on board as script doctor.) Retracing this lineage to the moment of the Panthers means the movie has to be more engaged with race than the series ever felt obliged to be - but despite Odom Jr.'s typically solid work, that engagement never really rises above the cursory and superficial. For one thing, it's hard to see how McBrayer rises to power on the New Jersey scene, given how comprehensively outnumbered he is. Chase shows scant interest in telling that story; the stubbornness that made the series so unique is this time round set to holding onto the old characters and traditions, rather than pursuing new paths and avenues. 
The thinness of the McBrayer strand is part of a wider structural awkwardness that gives the whole the look and feel of a drastically compressed miniseries: my primary takehome at the end of two hours was that this must have been a bastard of a film to edit. Too many scenes and plotlines in that second half don't get a chance to breathe as they would have done at length on TV; you see it most clearly in the death of a key character late on, gabbled through and slapped with a big soundtrack cue, where the series would almost certainly have fashioned a properly desolate tragedy from it. (Like Fredo on the lake, they had the weather for it.) Because it can't bring itself to make the same radical, decisive break from the past that, say, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me did from its predecessor, Saints is not as essential a movie as The Sopranos was a show: at best, it plays like a reasonably chewy footnote to a series that was always, even in its more wilful and wayward stretches, a main event. Perhaps it's only right that a Sopranos movie should leave us with complicated feelings to process - that's what the series did, week in week out - but these are less a result of any dramatic achievement than industrial scale, and how American TV is now routinely more accommodating than American movies. The show remains lightning: violent, electrifying and unpredictable, unlikely ever to strike twice in the same place. It's a slightly sad indictment of the failures of imagination now governing mainstream cinema that a creative as bold as Chase should have been handed the exhausting if not impossible task of recapturing it in a small, muffling, frankly too neat bottle.

The Many Saints of Newark is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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