There’s an episode in the first season of The Sopranos, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” where Soprano mob associate Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) is frustrated on two fronts, one his feeling that he lacks respect and standing in his chosen profession, the other in a hackneyed mob story screenplay he’s banging out that he knows lacks direction. “It says in these screenwriting books that every character has an arc,” he says. “Like, everybody starts somewhere, and they do something, something gets done to them, and it changes their life. That’s called an arc. Where’s my arc?”
The characters in The Many Saints of Newark must be pondering the same question, because they do a lot of somethings and a lot of somethings get done to them, yet none of them comes together into anything resembling an “arc,” or at least not one that lands in a satisfying, substantive way. It’s a surprising weakness considering one of Sopranos creator David Chase and his writers room’s greatest strengths was how an episode could balance multiple disparate plot threads and unite them through parallelism and thematic resonance—an episode like season 3’s “Fortunate Son,” which delves into Tony Soprano’s childhood relationship with his father through flashback while also showing the impact of adult Tony on his actual son A.J. and his surrogate sons Christopher and Jackie Aprile, Jr., in the here and now. The Sopranos tossed off episodes like that as if they were its raison d’être.
The Many Saints of Newark features many compelling scenes but Chase’s screenplay doesn’t tie them together with nearly the same finesse. The film’s primary purpose is to tell the story of the life and death of Christopher’s father Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a man never previously seen but whose legend loomed large in The Sopranos. But it’s also the story of the teenaged Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, in the role made famous by his father), his relationship with his overbearing mother Livia (Vera Farmiga), his often-absent gangster father Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal), and his true role model “Uncle Dickie” who ultimately drew him into the criminal life. And perhaps most surprising, it’s also about the racial unrest of the era as personified by Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a Black criminal who works alongside Dickie in the late 1960s, goes on the lam, and returns in the early 1970s ready to take on Dickie’s gang and take over the numbers game in Newark.
It’s this last arc that comes closest to sticking the landing, going beyond the gangland machinations to show how the increasing success of the Black community and the racism of the Italian-American community caused these gangsters to abandon their hometown for tony suburbs like North Caldwell, where Tony and Carmela’s generation raise their families by the late ‘90s.
The rest, unfortunately, is a bit of a narrative mess. Dickie does a lot of things but without any focus. He has a wife, but she’s a non-entity in the story; much more screentime is given to Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), the fresh-off-the-boat-from-Italy second wife of Dickie’s dad “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta). In short order, Dickie turns his stepmother into his own goomah (mistress), a bold move that seems like it’d cause scandal but it never does. After committing an act of violence, he seeks to atone by doing good by his uncle Sal (Liotta again) for…some reason that isn’t entirely clear, yet he still doesn’t seem like he’s turned over a new leaf in any other way. What it comes down to is his motivation is mushy; Chase never really establishes what Dickie wants so all of his actions feel like so much flailing.
It’s a shame because there’s a lot this movie does well. Director Alan Taylor (a series regular) nails the visual tone and pacing of the TV series, but uses color tinting to keep it at a remove. The TV series did this as well, with flashbacks that had a sort of orange sepia tone. Many Saints is a sort-of anti-nostalgic look back, and the camera agrees, giving everything an antiseptic blue tinge. Taylor also pulls a lot of great performances from his leads, particularly the original characters, from Nivola’s suave but quick to anger Dickie to Odom’s venturesome Harold to De Rossi’s captivating, passionate Giuseppina. Liotta gets off on the wrong foot with the obnoxious braying of Hollywood Dick, yet he impresses as the much more peaceful, thoughtful Uncle Sal.
Much is asked of the actors who revive younger versions of characters from the TV series, and the result is a bit of a mixed bag. You can draw a direct line from Farmiga’s tyrannical Soprano family matriarch to Nancy Marchand’s elderly version. Corey Stoll mercifully skips a direct impression but still has the same swagger and easily aggrieved air that Dominic Chianese brought to Tony’s Uncle Junior. And Gandolfini, in what is certainly the most watched role due to his familial connection, isn’t given nearly enough to do in the film but comes off well. There’s a scene showing the dueling personalities within Tony, the sweet boy destined to turn into a savage brute, where he beats an ice cream truck driver and steals his truck, but then drives it to the park to hand out all of the truck’s ice cream for free. The playful twinkle in his eyes speaks volumes.
And yet in most other ways, the nostalgia trip elements weigh the movie down. There’s a laundry list of blink-and-you-miss-them cameos of other characters from the show—Artie Bucco, Jackie Aprile, Big Pussy, Paulie Walnuts—that all could have hit the cutting room floor without negatively affecting the plot of the movie. Instead, we get situations like Tony shoving a blonde girl and awkwardly calling her “Carmela” just so the audience can have that ring of recognition for one brief moment. None of these cloying callbacks are worse, though, than John Magaro, whose obnoxiously cartoonish rendition of Silvio Dante (the sourpuss made legend by Steven Van Zandt) is easily the worst thing about this movie, yet he keeps coming up like a bad penny. (Just when you thought he was out…Chase pulls him back in.) The movie also opens and closes on sour notes; the opening scenes feature beyond-the-grave narration by Imperioli as Christopher that is on-the-nose and completely unnecessary, while the last scene (without spoiling anything) features a throwback so egregious it makes the rat at the end of The Departed look like the height of subtlety.
It probably sounds like I hated this movie but the reality is that I really didn’t. It has many annoying elements, many plot points that seem capricious and arbitrary, and doesn’t stick any sort of landing. But it also features many isolated scenes of compelling emotion, excellent performances from most of the central cast, and the violence? Oh man, the violence is every bit as bold and shocking as it was in the TV series, exploding when you least expect it and impressive in its sadism. Chase most definitely still has the touch. You just leave this movie wishing he had more focus, or more landscape to play with. If this movie were a two-episode flashback within the structure of the TV series, where the things that don’t pay off linger in the background to be resolved later, they may be fondly remembered as some of its best moments. But as a standalone movie, Many Saints suffers. | Jason Green
The Many Saints of Newark is in theaters now, and streaming on HBO Max through the end of October.