‘The Many Saints of Newark’ commits a sin because it’s better suited as a series

“The Many Saints of Newark” – “The Sopranos” ran for six glorious, Emmy Award-winning seasons from 1999 to 2007.  Fourteen years after Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” accompanied the fateful and sudden shudder to black on the last scene of the series finale, a “The Sopranos” feature film – “The Many Saints of Newark” – arrives in theatres and HBO Max.

Yes, believe it!

“The Sopranos” creator David Chase has been approached to write a movie about our “favorite” New Jersey mob family before, but he always resisted.  However, in an Aug. 19, 2021 Rolling Stone interview with Alan Sepinwall, David explains that the genesis of “The Many Saints of Newark” came about 20 years ago from screenwriter Tom Fontana.

“Tom said he thought it would be interesting to do a story in Newark in the old days of Johnny and Junior.  That appealed to me because my mother (came) from Newark at that time.  My parents met in Newark at that time,” Chase says.

He adds, “I never forgot (that conversation).”

This 1960s/1970s prequel – set during Tony Soprano’s teen and preteen years – looks and feels authentic for the big screen.  Unfortunately, director Alan Taylor and screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Chase include way too much story for only two hours. 

Quite ironically, this flick is so well-suited for a new series, perhaps 10 one-hour episodes, but instead, the movie feels like Taylor, Konner, and Chase jammed snippets from these characters’ lives – some new, others very familiar – into a 120-minute highlight reel.   

It’s 1967, and we first meet Tony’s uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).  He runs a numbers racket, and he and his top soldier in the field, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), chase down a random collector who holds out on them. 

Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Dickie (Alessandro Nivola)

Where’s all the cash?  The envelope seems light.

Dickie is Christopher’s dad.  We never meet Michael Imperioli, but he does narrate from the grave.  Although Christopher is an infant here, long before his addictions come to a head (See Season 4 Episode 10), “Newark” treats us to several well-loved characters, decades into the past. 

Casting director Douglas Aibel and a slew of actors deserve heaping praise and dozens of future favors for delighting fans with actors and performances who wildly resemble younger versions of the famous series’ personalities. 

Billy Magnussen and John Magaro are dead ringers for Paulie and Sil, and so is Samson Moeakiola as Pussy Bonpensiero, although he doesn’t have many speaking lines.

Corey Stoll plays a fine, ornery (and yes, bald, even during the late 60s) Uncle Junior, and Vera Farmiga – who should star in everything – plays Tony’s mom, Livia.  With Farmiga’s prosthetic nose, Livia in this film eerily resembles Edie Falco – who, of course, plays Tony’s wife, Carmela, in the television series – so one has to believe that Konner and Chase are dancing with Freudian themes.

Last but not least, James Gandolfini’s 22-year-old son, Michael, rightfully is a teenage Tony, and William Ludwig is our hero at an elementary school age.  For the record, Ludwig looks strikingly similar to Robert Iler, so again, well done, Mr. Aibel!

Tony (Michael Gandolfini)

Paulie, Sil, Pussy, Tony’s sister Janice (Alexandra Intrator, Mattea Conforti) make occasional appearances.  Still, the film’s primary arc is Dickie’s, who sports a four-headed hydra of plot threads, which include leading his shady enterprise, juggling relationships between his wife (Gabriella Piazza) and girlfriend (Michela De Rossi), coping with his irritable dad (Ray Liotta), and mentoring his nephew Tony. 

From a fan’s perspective, taking care of Tony should be Dickie’s most essential responsibility, but regrettably, the other three gather up (about) triple the amount of screen time.

Hey, that’s just quick math. 

Granted, Dickie’s ongoing tension with Harold, Giuseppina (De Rossi), and his dad offer some genuine and curious sparks, but ultimately, we mostly care about his influence on the young and impressionable Tony. 

Dickie and Tony do get some actual face time, as Mr. Moltisanti offers stand-tall-and-do-the-right-thing spiels.  Indeed, his messages are well-intentioned, but Dickie lives with a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do code, and sometimes, Tony witnesses his uncle’s nefarious transgressions.  Since our young protagonist’s dad (Jon Bernthal) is serving time, any thoughts of Tony following positive role models are wasted brain synapses. 

Tony (Gandolfini) and Dickie (Nivola)

This film successfully conveys that Johnny’s (Bernthal) void and Livia’s constant misery built Tony’s foundation of adult criminal philosophies and mental illness.  Tony isn’t The Beaver, and Johnny and Livia aren’t Ward and June, but we rarely see the young man internalize and process these events.  (Although, admittedly, we do on a couple of occasions.)

Instead, the script usually cuts away from Dickie’s laundry list of headaches and flips to Tony bouncing a basketball, reading a comic book, or beating up an ice cream man and stealing his truck.  So, how does he go from good egg to goon?  Sure, T’s immoral environment is pouring the cement, but we don’t get nearly enough time with Tony to observe his change from the aforementioned “d” to “n”.

“The Many Saints of Newark” commits a sin, because it seems like the filmmakers took a 10-hour narrative, chopped, sliced, and diced it – like Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) in Season 4 Episode 9 – and glued a few pieces back together into a linear – but unfulfilling – story. 

It’s a movie with humor, realistic dank 60s/70s cinematography, vicious violence, a Van Morrison song, and some folks we know, but due to the film’s construction and focus – and it pains me to say this – it’s missing its heart.

⭐️⭐️ out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: David Chase and Lawrence Konner

Starring: Michael Gandolfini, Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stall, Ray Liotta, and Michela De Rossi

Rated: R

Runtime: 120 minutes

Image credits: New Line Cinema, HBO Films, Chase Films

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4 Thoughts to “‘The Many Saints of Newark’ commits a sin because it’s better suited as a series”

  1. WarDog

    He probably said the the same thing about sex and the city

    1. I didn’t actually, but that’s funny! Touche. Hey, I’m a “The Sopranos” fan, so if you see “Newark”, I sincerely hope that you have a good experience.

  2. Montauk6

    Jeff, good critique. I too am a Sopranos fan and was waiting all YEAR for the release of this prequel. After the meh-ness of “Not Fade Away,” it’s clear that David Chase, genius TV showrunner, is no more a big-screen guy than Tom Hagen is a wartime consiglieri.

    And SPEAKING of ol’ Tom, I gotta say that I haven’t seen the talent of such brilliant actors wasted so bad since John Savage was criminally squandered as the aforementioned Hagen’s priest kid in “Godfather III”

    1. Thank you for your feedback, and I’m sorry that this movie didn’t work for you as well, Yea, there are a lot of talented actors up there, but the script and editing room let them down. I haven’t seen “Not Fade Away”, but I see that James Gandolfini was in it. I may have to check it out for that, but yes, I appreciate the warning!

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