Nathan’s review published on Letterboxd:
Many people got flamed for calling this an overlong retread when it came out last year, and I understand the sentiment -- Scorsese isn't going to be around forever, and it's unusual these days to see this kind of large-scale adult-targeted auteurist filmmaking celebrated so widely in the mainstream. (Having said that, Netflix's distribution of this film is in some ways a marker of how an unexpected seismic shift is happening -- yes, it meant that many members of its potential audience couldn't see it in theaters, but it also expanded that audience a hundred times over.) So I hope you'll give me the benefit of the doubt in saying that this is part of a genre of film, with many previously made by Scorsese and many not, that I very simply don't understand. Deep down, I don't think intricately plotted, unapologetically masculine Mob movies cause or celebrate violence or toxic behavior; what I do think is that they come with the expectation of a certain morbid interest on the part of the audience, the prevailing assumption that power is a universal desire or that the glamour of being feared has an allure that requires breaking down on a massive, epic scale. Unfortunately, for me stories of this nature are the nearly literal equivalent of watching paint dry -- they hold next to no appeal whatsoever to such an alienating extent that it has to be something in my genes. Watching The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, I basically feel like I'm being scolded for something I didn't do; I find interesting neither the characters occupying these films nor their directors' apparent wrestling with the moral implications of and aesthetic fascination with the violence therein. The closest I've ever really come to "getting it" was Scorsese's Goodfellas, which was just frenzied and imaginative enough to cut through my resistance, though I still find it deeply unpleasant to watch; the flipside is his Casino, a cocaine-drenched, nihilistic movie that for me is nearly unbearable.
The Irishman falls somewhere between these extremes, tells a story that probably warrants a film from Scorsese's POV -- that of disgraced union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and his eventual disappearance -- and it does boast a uniquely modernist new spin on the classic tropes of the modern gangster film. (Classic gangster films, like Hawks' Scarface, were really about dismantling mythologies and folk heroes in a very broad, dynamic sense; movies like this tend to be more about chipping away in mindnumbingly excessive detail.) That is to say, the entire narrative is framed on hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) looking back on the busiest years of his life with a mixture of longing and regret -- the very end of Goodfellas stretched to overshadow an entire 209-minute film. It's in these portions of the film that Scorsese seems enlivened by the relative freshness of the material -- the penetrating glare of Anna Paquin as his estranged daughter serving as a structuring, silent rage -- as opposed to the many, many scenes that feel indistinguishable from moments we've seen over and over again, generally with parts of this same cast. The performances are wonderful; it's really fun to see long-retired Joe Pesci again, lower-key and more resigned than ever before, and both Pacino and De Niro sink into their roles with engaging enthusiasm, Pacino in particular really selling himself as a lone-survivor movie star. Some parts of Steven Zaillian's script are surprisingly bubbly and amusing, but again, there's a lot to sort through here. The whole thing has the nostalgic air of getting the band back together, with a bit of moral regret and sadness in the mix, and there probably really won't be another of "these" movies made on this scale, so maybe I should be automatically on board with that nostalgia, but I'm just not. Alas, I really just don't care. Oh, and it's too fucking long.