‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Review

In 1999, David Chase changed television forever with The Sopranos. Equal parts a mobster epic, a satire, a sitcom, a morality tale, and a statement on America at the end of the millennium, The Sopranos won dozens of awards, ushered in a new era of television (see: Mad Men, The Americans, Breaking Bad, Mare of Easttown, etc.), and earned its place amongst the best TV shows of all time. 20 years later, Chase returns to the world of New Jersey crime, focusing on the world of his iconic character’s childhood, filled with Biblical allegories, a slew of character actors doing impressions of iconic veteran performances, and rising star Michael Gandolfini paying homage to his late father’s legacy by taking on his most famous role. The end result, as with most of Chase’s recent work, is a hodgepodge. There are flashes of brilliance within The Many Saints of Newark. It’s just a shame that it’s buried beneath self-congratulatory lily-gilding.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the DiMeo Crime Family ruled New Jersey, thanks to the strength of capos Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), his older brother Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), and rising member Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). However, after years of rising through the ranks, Moltisanti finds himself pulled in a variety of contradictory, stressful directions. He’s feuding with his aging mobster father Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), pining for his father’s new young wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), battling his former protégé Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), and all the while, trying to set a good example for his young cousin: Johnny’s wide-eyed son Anthony (Gandolfini). The events during this period would set in motion an unstoppable force of destiny, in which young Anthony would emerge from the other side as Tony Soprano, the ferocious boss of all of New Jersey.

Before discussing why Many Saints does or doesn’t work, we need to talk about The Sopranos as a show, and why it’s considered one of – if not the – greatest show of all time. Upon its release in 1999, The Sopranos made a name for itself by constantly changing the game, narratively and thematically. As a show, it consistently went against audiences’ preconceived notions of what a mob show could or should be. We got an inner glimpse at the life of the mobsters – how they interacted with their families, their personal crises, and, most famously of all, their interactions with therapists to deal with depression. The portrayal of the late 90s/early aughts family was perhaps the most realistic depiction ever put on film, be it in theaters or on television. Furthermore, the characters were portrayed in a more honest, pathetic way when compared to The Godfather or Goodfellas.

Those gangsters (portrayed in what The Sopranos would call “the good ‘ole days”) were suave and respectable and only killed those who committed immoral acts. Here, our protagonists were track suit-wearing con artists who barely succeeded in knocking over coffee shops and often portrayed as brutally killing civilians. Which, in many ways, was the point of the show. It was about the immigrant diaspora several generations down, and of the increasing malaise in the Clinton and Bush-eras, as characters chased after an already-dead American Dream and lamented for an era where men were men and women were women. It was constantly ahead of its time (one episode dealt with the Christopher Columbus controversy a full twenty years before it became a cultural talking point), wholeheartedly game-changing, and broke new ground even as it embraced comedy over drama.

So with that knowledge and legacy to live up to, how did Many Saints fare? Well, there are two films struggling to come out at the heart of Alan Taylor and David Chase’s prequel. The first is a relatively interesting film, a deconstruction of the myth of the “good old days” and an exploration of the cyclical nature of relations regarding race, class, and background. To tell this story, Chase utilizes a bizarre, but mostly effective storytelling choice involving narration by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) inside the graveyard on his way to Hell. Christopher was an infant during the “good old days,” and was one of the original show’s best devices for criticizing the self-mythologizing. For Many Saints is a critique of those individuals (predominantly from a specific generation) who long for the past, in every form. This subject exists on a microcosmic scale – the infamous beehive gunshot mentioned in the episode “Soprano Home Movies” is portrayed here, but unlike the show’s humorous retelling, this is no comedy bit. It is a traumatizing moment for all, demonstrating how generations tend to reimagine horrific events as comedic to shield from the trauma.

But these ideas also exist on a macrocosmic scale, tied into the notion that the “good old days” we long for and mythologize were no less tense and broken as things are today. Specifically, the film explores this topic through the Newark riots, sparked by the beating of an innocent Black man that sparked protests and infighting between the growing Black population, the generations of racist Italians who’d inhabited the city for years, and a corrupt police force desperate for both groups to kill each other off. Gee, that sounds familiar. Many Saints explores these topics through an overall message of “the little things build up.” It’s the little moments of racism played out over several years that spark the riots. It’s the little moments of petty theft and parental slighting that lead to wide-eyed Anthony becoming the murderous, power-hungry Tony. And it’s the little things that lead to Dickie’s death at the hands of a surprising source (to reveal much more would give away the fun).

Many Saints also shines when it emphasizes the original show’s themes of parenthood, and an underlying sense of humor. Perhaps more so than the riots, or Tony’s journey, or even the mob infighting, Many Saints is about the Oedipal complex. Sure, this was a subject of the original show, considering Tony’s complicated relationship with Livia (here played by Vera Farmiga, taking over for Nancy Marchand’s towering performance). But Many Saints takes these ideas to a far more literal place: Dickie is in love with his father’s new wife, who is an attractive woman younger than he is. The desire to kill his father and take his stepmother as a mistress is present from the jump, where Dickie tries to belittle his father in her eyes and listening in on the pair having sex through the house’s thin walls. In fact, complicated father/son relationships underline the film throughout, in ways both intentional and potentially unintentional. Traces of Tony’s parenting style are prevalent in Johnny’s aggressive nature. And Dickie’s relationship with his goomar bears striking similarities to Christopher’s relationship with Adriana, including buying her a business and a bitter conclusion.

And the film’s best moments come when it remembers the sense of whimsical stupidity. No show was able to capture the irony and humor involved in a group of dumb schmuck crooks who thought they were modern-day knights. Chase gives us a litany of great sequences and visuals, including a pair of twin gangsters at the heart of the story. The heists are never as grand or as brave as the retellings we hear on The Sopranos; instead, we watch as a group of street toughs steals an ice cream truck and lazily passes out sweets to the neighborhood kids, solely to impress some cheerleaders. Big Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola) and all-time great character Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) rob a television store on the way to a funeral because they know looters will be blamed. And in one of the film’s funniest moments, a young boy being chased by the mobsters inadvertently runs into a Vietnam recruitment center, sentencing him to death either way. When coupled with Chase’s insane, but brilliant musical choices, several moments in the film feel like an extended episode of the show at its peak.

However, I mentioned before that there are two films struggling to get out inside of Many Saints, and unfortunately the second is a vehicle for “Remember When” sentimentalities. And as any true fan of The Sopranos knows, “Remember When” is the lowest form of conversation. While little references to the lore of the show are occasionally appreciated – including a character casually mentioned to be related to bit character Willie Overall – the film, for the most part, tends to serve as a vehicle for nostalgia. Remember how funny self-serious consigliere Silvio Dante was? Remember how Junior used to tell Tony that he never had the makings of a varsity athlete? Sure, the central themes are still there – the family drama, domestic violence, toxic masculinity, racism – but it all feels less fresh than it did 15 years ago. Sure, a part of that is the fact that this is all well-worn territory in the Year of Our Lord 2021, but it’s also because Chase is mostly just retreading old ground. And what’s worse, he’s doing so in a melodramatic way, without any of the irony prevalent from the show. It helps to watch these heinous acts when the characters are all dumb schmucks.

And speaking of the characters, I want to take a moment to talk about the women of The Many Saints of Newark. There is no doubt in my mind that the women in this film are fascinating characters, and all of them are well-acted. However, what is unfortunate is that none of them are three-dimensional. Each and every female character exists as an object for the men, a service to their stories. One could argue that this technically makes sense, I suppose, in a story about the ramifications of a patriarchal system that exists to oppress the women in their lives. But this excuse doesn’t fly when you consider the strength of the women in The Godfather, or Goodfellas, which all covered similar themes while still producing three-dimensional female characters. And it’s incredibly heinous when you consider The Sopranos’ legacy, which equally dealt with misogyny while still giving us Dr. Melfi, and Meadow, and Ro, and Adriana, and Livia, and especially Carmela Soprano, one of the most emotionally complex and interesting characters in the history of television. In fact, when you consider how great those female characters were, it almost feels like the women in Many Saints weren’t intended to offer commentary at all – which makes the issues with the writing stand out all the more.

In terms of the acting, despite several great performances, there are only a handful of actors that seem worthy of standing in the shadow of the greatest television ensemble of all time. Alessandro Nivola is one of the greatest character actors in all of Hollywood, and he’s certainly intriguing here as Dickie Moltisanti, but ultimately it feels as though the script lets him down. Dickie is supposed to be a larger-than-life figure even in his own time, and yet while Nivola plays things intelligently close to the chest, he never says or does anything that implies he’s worthy of these appraisals. In short, he’s no Tony.

Speaking of Tony, both actors stepping into the late Gandolfini’s massive shoes do a surprisingly admirable job. Young William Ludwig is a perfect little sh*t for the role of the charismatic sociopath as a child, before the world beat him down. But the revelation here is Gandolfini’s son, Michael, taking over his dad’s legacy. Michael Gandolfini is incredible as a much more innocent version of the iconic character, playing the role as something of a cross between Christopher and A.J., a lovable idiot who wants to do right but is too lazy/stupid/socially inept to do so. Plus, he’s got his dad’s trademark smirk, which adds an extra layer to almost every scene he’s in.

As the patriarch and matriarch of the Soprano clan, I wish Bernthal and Farmiga had a bit more to do. Bernthal is barely in the film, but he makes the most of every scene he’s in, even channeling some of the late Gandolfini’s rage into the performance. Meanwhile, Farmiga is an interesting choice for the indomitable Livia. She perfectly captures the character’s lack of filter and trademark cynicism, yet channels it into a performance and decade where she still has a sense of life and hope. It’s nowhere near as dominating or as memorable as Marchand was at the beginning of the series, but it’s at least a fascinating performance, filled with crocodile tears and sarcasm, only veering towards caricature when she utters the character’s iconic catchphrase “Oh, poor you!” Although with that said, any moment where the young Gandolfini and Farmiga play off each other is pure perfection.

Ironically, two of the best characters in the film have nothing to do with the original series in the slightest. They have to do with actors at the top of their game acting, as opposed to recreating already-famous roles. Leslie Odom Jr.’s social climbing Harold McBrayer is a fascinating character, a perfect foil for the Italian mobsters we’ve lived with for what is now twenty years. This may be Odom Jr.’s best cinematic performance to date, forcing him to craft a new, original character who is hungry for power and respect, inspired by the Black Power movement, and ready to make his play for the top. In many ways, he’s the character most reminiscent of Tony – desperate to support his family and willing to do anything to raise his status in society. Meanwhile, Liotta pulls double duty, playing both Dickie’s father “Hollywood Dick,” as well as his incarcerated twin Sally. The roles couldn’t be more different – Dick is a motormouthed assh*le while Sal is a reflective voice of reason in his nephew’s ear. Both performances are great, but I really appreciate Liotta’s subtlety in playing Sal – it’s one of his best performances to date, even better than Marriage Story or Goodfellas.

Which brings us to the cameos, in which a series of rising stars take on the roles made famous by Tony Sirico and Steven Van Zandt and beyond. I appreciated Chase Vacin’s performance as Jackie Aprile, whom he plays in a performance much closer to Jason Cerbone’s performance as his son on the series. Similarly, Alexandra Intrator and Robert Vincent Montano both give modest performances of future characters Janice and Artie, respectively, as does Moeakiola as Big Pussy. I truly did not care for John Magaro’s performance as Silvio – despite loving the actor and the character (he might be my favorite), Magaro’s constantly just doing an over-the-top impression of the famous gangster, not unlike Sil’s campy impression of Michael Corleone. Billy Magnussen’s work as Paulie Walnuts is much more impressive, capturing Paulie’s quirks and traits while still crafting a hilariously original work on its own.

And finally, there’s Corey Stoll as Uncle Junior. I’ve saved him for last because Stoll’s performance here is the greatest strength the film has to offer. Uncle Junior was the original show’s secret weapon and emotional core. An aging gangster constantly passed over and abandoned by younger generations, Junior was one of the original show’s best characters from the jump, and Stoll wholeheartedly understands this. Stoll threads the needle between goofy fan service and impersonation while still finding an emotional center to the character. Oh, sure, he’s got the character’s hilariously filthy mouth and vocal inflections down. But look at the posture, and the anger behind the eyes in every scene. Hell, I’d go as far as to call this Junior’s movie more than it is Dickie’s or Tony’s. It’s an origin story for a character who morphs, before our very eyes, into the fragile, tragic, lovable antagonist from the original show. I love this performance, to the point I almost wish the film had centered upon Stoll more than it did any other character.

The Many Saints of Newark is a mixed bag on all fronts. As a continuation of The Sopranos, it’s an inconsistent execution of ideas and themes. As a standalone film, it’s an inconsistent execution of ideas and themes. As a piece of acting, it’s an inconsistent execution of ideas and themes. There are moments of brilliance and moments of disaster, sometimes in the same scene. And while other films and filmmakers would kill for that level of quality, the entire project ends up feeling like Chase gilded the lily on his already-perfect show.

C+

The Many Saints of Newark is now streaming on HBO Max until October 31st. It is also playing in a theater near you

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