The Sopranos changed American media forever, launching us into a Golden Age of Television that no one’s really sure we’ve left in the 22 years since the show first premiered in 1999. It redefined what compelling, relatable and sympathetic characters could look like and the sort of personal issues they could share with audiences on screen. It is well worthy of the title of the greatest television series of all time.
With The Many Saints of Newark, showrunner David Chase brings his opus back to life, this time on the big screen while collaborating with returning cohorts director Alan Taylor and co-writer Lawrence Konner. The result is a film filled with fan fodder, but one that is ultimately unnecessary and inert. Spoilers below:
The story of Many Saints is framed within the omniscient reminiscings of the now deceased Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who speaks to the audience from beyond the grave as he burns in Hell. Christopher recounts a time in the world shortly before and after his birth, detailing the life events that would shape a young Tony Soprano (William Ludwig, Michael Gandolfini), into the monster that he would become. Tony is enthralled with his “uncle by marriage,” Christopher’s father Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), a made man of the DiMeo crime family. This is as much Dickie’s movie as it is Tony’s, and we follow the mobster through a series of tribulating episodes within a roughly five-year span of his life, including: a romance with Giuseppina Moltisanti (Michela de Rossi), his stepmother-turned-goomar, once married to his father “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), a boorish patriarch murdered at Dickie’s own hand; sessions of confrontational introspection between Dickie and his Uncle Sally (also Liotta); the rise and revolt of his former associate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.); and a medley of mob happenings featuring prequelizied versions of classic Sopranos characters. All the while, ostensibly, Dickie tries to lead a good example for Tony.
I say “ostensibly” because that’s what the movie seems to be so convinced of itself that that is what it is doing. It fails in this attempt, however; whatever endearing scenes there are between Dickie and Tony are chopped up among too much other stuff. The story is both bloated and at the same time emotionally unfulfilling. While its all a very fine series of entertaining vignettes, the piece doesn’t work as a whole, and while a strong actor, Chase and Taylor have unfortunately fallen for the idea that Nivola’s handsomeness is enough to make Dickie a compelling character. It does not.
Speaking of characters, there are a lot in this movie. Very few of the familiar faces provide anything to the film other than fan service and, Madonn’!, what glorious fan service it is. The performances of Billy Magnussen, John Magaro and Samson Moeakiola as future Soprano confidantes Paulie “Walnuts,” Silvio Dante and “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, respectively, are all fine impressions, but alas, they never rise above that status: impressions—quick, quippy things of interjectory nature. Jon Bernthal delivers his usual gruff and frustrated range for his turn as Johnny Soprano, Tony’s father, largely ignoring the menacing precedent set by his television predecessor. They’re all fine turns, but they do nothing for the film’s story.
And what of young Michael Gandolfini, assuming the role of his late father James? How well does he fill the shoes of the sad clown Soprano? Adequately—enough. There are some scenes where he stumbles, mostly due to expository or throw-away writing, and there are others where he does just fine. His performances telegraph the daunting task of meeting his father’s legacy, but he does dad proud plenty of times throughout.
The real stars of the show are Corey Stoll and Vera Farmiga, playing younger versions of classic Sopranos villains “Junior” and Livia Soprano, respectively. Rather than party-trick imitations or complete redefinitions of the characters, these performances are the most natural and most understandable as viable precursors to the geriatric monsters they will become, rife with their trademark insecurities and personal dysfunction. It’s clear that Chase and Konner had the most fun returning to these characters in particular, and it shows in the breadth that Livia and Junior are granted to play in the world of the film—even if it means forcing in the entry of a “Poor you!” or “varsity athlete” line without any sense of tact.
On the subject of writing, Many Saints is a textbook case of “mixed bag.” On the one hand, plenty of the film is totally entertaining and enthralling (the Dickie-Sally scenes are a fantastically dark inversion of the Tony-Melfi scenes from the show), and on the other hand audiences may find the film unoriginal and underdeveloped, pocked with hokey dialogue. Structural issues have already been mentioned, but never are they more clear than in the Harold McBrayer storyline. The film begins to the backdrop of the 1967 Newark race riots, presenting historical commentary relevant to today’s world. However, rather than fully explore the nuanced relationship of shared prejudice and persecution between Blacks and Italians, a very strong finger-on-the-pulse first act is abandoned to try and make way for the Dickie-Tony storyline, and whatever honest social observations are made, they are shallow, and never deliver on any unique criticism of “the issue.”
While themes of cyclicity and change are present throughout, they are not exactly novel ideas to explore in the violent genre mash-up of a mobster period piece. That’s disappointing coming from Chase, whose original work on The Sopranos opened up audiences to all kinds of new cognition on cultural topics. Then again, Chase had seven years to craft that masterpiece, and here he just barely meets one-hundred-and-twenty minutes. Had he just given Many Saints a little more time, say, about a half-hour more of footage, then it would no doubt have been a far stronger work. It’s unlikely that the tight two-hour runtime is his fault, though, and no doubt was the decision of out-of-touch executives who don’t understand the already gluttonous nature of Sopranos fans to begin with, who would have taken as much content as would have been given them.
The Many Saints of Newark is overstuffed and undercooked. For fans, it’s a pleasing entry into the Sopranos canon, but if you’re looking for depth, well… I’d recommend taking a cement-boot dip into the Hudson.