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The Many Saints of Newark digs up the Ghost of Sopranos Past – The Sunbreak

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The Many Saints of Newark (2021 | USA | 120 minutes | Alan Taylor)

Many Saints

David Chase spent six glorious seasons creating the world of Tony Soprano in weekly installments on HBO. From start to cut-to-black finish, it felt like complete and fully realized world and heralded the dawn of a Platinum Age of prestige television. Yet, we live in an entertainment ecosystem where established intellectual property is king and our hunger for content is perpetual. So, it’s back to the well of New Jersey crime families we go with a new film whose poster’s tagline “Who Made Tony Soprano” is three times larger than its actual title. The mix of a classic mob drama with callouts to characters we know, love, and despise isn’t entirely a success, but it’s equally challenging as viewers to resist another dip into this world.

The promotion as a Tony Soprano origin story is clever, but is also something of a bait-and-switch. It’s a tactic that seemingly sparked every young person in America to suddenly rediscover and binge The Sopranos over the last year. If that’s what it takes to get the kids to spend time with one of the greatest television series of all time, then let’s call this minor manipulation a net good regardless of whether the movie is good (spoiler: it’s fine). 

Sure, young Tony and the coterie of family (mafia and otherwise) who populate the HBO drama are hover constantly on the periphery, but the core story is largely the stand-alone story of the rise, struggles, and traumas of another member of the DiMeo crime family. Bizarrely narrated from beyond the grave with some self-indulgence and a bit of dry humor by Tony Soprano’s cousin (who he called a nephew) Christo-feh, this “Sopranos Story” allows the murdered ghost another chance on the grand stage to relate the life and times of a character who never appeared on the series: his father Dickie Moltisanti (the translations of which gives the film it’s “Many Saints” title). 

When we meet Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), Cristopher hasn’t yet been born, which answers the pressing question of whether ghosts can see through the mists of time. Nevertheless, the voice of this unsettled spirit drops us into the late 1960s Newark where his father and child Tony Soprano roll up in a white Impala to greet Dickie’s suave father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta,  in the less effective of two roles) upon his return from Italy. To Dickie’s surprise, his good old dad has come home from Naples with a hot, young, new stepmother (Michela De Rossi as Giuseppina) who barely speaks a word of english. It doesn’t take a fortune-teller or enlightened ghost to see that this relationship’s going to get complicated. 

While everyone loves a little familial lust triangle, any good mob movie needs some crime and mounting tensions between power brokers. Here, Chase remedies the relative whiteness of the Sopranos and acknowledges the existence of people of color in Newark by way of a subplot about the relationship between the Italian crime family and the African-American community who runs a semi-underground “numbers” gambling operation. As the collector of profits among the homespun betting operation, the nexus between these symbiotic groups is Leslie Odom as Harold McBrayer, Dickie’s high school friend, whose role provides a window into the growing Black Power movement, rising police brutality, the stark societal inequities, including the mounting toll of the Vietnam War.

The late-1960s/early-1970s in gritty New Jersey provide a richly nostalgic canvas for director Alan Taylor, splitting the film between the mob hangouts, the gritty city beset by police violence, and the idealized suburbs of Italian-American families. And there’s plenty to mine in simmering father-son resentments, rising pressure for inter-racial equality and self-determination, and the perils of falling for your sexy stepmother while still trying to be a good role model for your precocious nephew and being able to think of yourself as a “good” man. Nivola meets the challenge of creating this new character from whole cloth, but it’s hard to get invested when we know there’s something far more consequential on the horizon.

As for the Tony of It All, a five-year time skip gets us from Little Kid Tony poking around his uncle’s garage to the formative high school years. Here, James Gandolfini’s son Michael rises to the challenge of playing the character that his father made iconic and grabs the third act of the movie to fulfil the poster’s promise. 

This Tony is distant from his real father, having grown up with idolizing his uncle and surrogate father Dickie while his mobster dad Johnny was doing time. At this shaggy-haired music-loving point in his life, we’re reminded that Tony was a good kid that wanted to steer clear of his family criminal enterprise by staying in school so that he could play on the high school football team, make it into college, and get picked up by the NFL. Of course, he and his buddies can’t help but get into petty scams that get them into minor troubles and it’s amusing to have a peek at the junior mafia underpinnings. Still, there’s very little subtlety to these sections. For instance, a heavy-handed meeting with a school counselor sets up his future with Dr. Melfi while hammering home the point that the kid tests as super smart and has a Meyers-Briggs personality inventory of a natural leader. Wonder how that’ll play out?  

On this front, Newark may delight Sopranophiles with facile call-forwards to the characters that consumed our rapt attention for six seasons of prestige drama. They don’t necessarily reveal anything new, but it’s hard not to be distracted by them, even when most play as (potentially inadvertent) comic relief. Vera Farmiga does her best Nancy Marchand impression to give us a glimpse of Livia Soprano as a young housewife: still miserable, resistant to psychopharmaceuticals, and self-obsessed to the point of making herself and everyone around her – especially Baby Tony – miserable. She gets a lot of laughs, but it doesn’t really deepen the character in any way. 

Similarly, we learn the mundane origins of perpetually passed-over Uncle Junior’s aches, pains, and resentments through some very hammy performances and exaggerated writing by Corey Stoll in trademark oversized spectacles. Tony’s sister Janice, pretty much always an annoying pill. His dad, absent and distant via prison time. Key Sopranos associates – handed down from father to son – are also in the mix. Samson Moeakiola is a ringer for Big Pussy, but even as comic relief the less said of John Magaro’s servicable Silvio Dante and Billy Magnussen’s crimes against Paulie Walnuts, the better. Every time these two appear in the midst of other dramatic storylines, it’s like flies in the tonal ointment with one-dimensional impersonations that make SNL’s “Sopranos Diaries” sketch look nuanced (yes, we also get a Teen Carmela sighting).  

As Dickie goes about his attempts to climb the ranks, fend off challenges from his rivals, and balancing his personal life while committing casual murders in cinematic fashion, it all somehow takes a backseat to What This All Means for Tony’s Psyche. A large portion of the film plays out in Knausgård-ian fashion in an extended episode concerning underage Tony’s efforts to secure a few cases of beer for a winter break party. It’s an effort to weave the small teenage tragedies into a greater whole, but still feels too shoehorned. 

While the whole film is a mixed bag – cute pre-nostalgia, classic crime, sprawling family drama – it did contain one glorious surprise that redeems the whole shaky enterprise. If you had told me that the single greatest part of The Many Saints of Newark was going to be Ray Liotta (playing a second role), I’d have assumed…

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Read More:The Many Saints of Newark digs up the Ghost of Sopranos Past – The Sunbreak