This prequel film to the storied HBO cable series The Sopranos generated a lot of publicity with the novelty casting of the late lead actor James Gandolfini’s son Michael as the teen Tony Soprano. Now, fans are primed to watch the young impressionable Tony come of age. Is it worth it?
Eschewing normal screenplay structure, where a compelling protagonist fights against an antagonist and incredible odds, the injudicious script by series creator/writer David Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner chooses to follow a host of criminal characters instead. Few of these people have any great appeal. Few, as written, are devilishly evil enough to shock an audience into submission.
Tony’s surrogate uncle and mentor Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) lords over an Italian gang in Newark, N.J.—in 1967. His crew runs a numbers racket all over town, including the black section where his ex-high-school buddy Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Hamilton) gathers the dough and menaces anyone who doesn’t pay up. Dickie’s life changes the day his dad “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas) returns from Italy with his new way-too-young and pretty wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). Her looks tempt men.
Visually the footage is unappealing. Dark murky lighting (cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau), artificial looking sets (production designer Bob Shaw), boring clothes (Amy Westcott) and imprecise editing aren’t attractive and give the footage a dirge-like pace. Fortunately, Susan Jacobs’ musical score and a playlist with Dionne Warwick and Van Morrison add some verve.
The script sets the story against the backdrop of Newark’s black community’s historic riots/uprising in July 12-17, 1967. The “fuse” that lit the city up was a rumor that a black cab driver had been killed by Newark police inside a precinct house. Deciding to exploit this bit of history is not likely to garner a lot of praise from black viewers. Also, don’t expect the Italian community to be thrilled by the film’s dehumanizing tropes and stereotypes.
Director Alan Taylor, who guided numerous The Sopranos episodes, seems like he is sketching scenes on a pad versus a larger canvas. The composition of each shot, especially the family gatherings and such, seem claustrophobic, like he doesn’t know how to take advantage of a much larger screen. Gun battles, fights, car rides—any scene that should be expansive seems truncated or doesn’t reach its full potential. Little screen instincts aren’t suitable for big feature films.
Dickie Moltisanti is a prick, but not an extraordinary one. Certainly not the kind of bully who deserves his own movie. He is not an iconic character like Don Vito Corleone (The Godfather) and Nivola is not Marlon Brando. It would take a character and an actor of that magnitude to make watching this 120-minute film as engaging as it should be.
Odom, an Award-winning Broadway actor, isn’t believable as a gangster who can tread on the Mafia types. His Harold is too refined—like a college professor. Liotta’s portrayal of Hollywood Dick seems like a caricature of Ray Liotta roles. Conversely, Liotta as Hollywood’s imprisoned brother Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti, underplays that character to great perfection. Vera Farmiga isn’t the least but convincing as Tony’s Italian mom and neither is Corey Stoll as the duplicitous Uncle Junior. Jon Bernthal adds a menacing volatility as the hotheaded Johnny, Tony’s pop, while Michela De Rossi makes it easy to understand why married men would risk so much to bed Giuseppina. That character isn’t a Jezebel or a Circe, but definitely a temptress. What viewers won’t understand is why a woman like her would out her paramours. It doesn’t make sense.
The good news for The Sopranos’ fans is that 22-year-old Michael Gandolfini has that same intriguing glint in his eyes as his dad and is more interesting to watch than most of the other actors. Judging by his performance, he’s ready to play Tony Soprano as a young adult—in a series, which as is, looks like the only proper arena for a continuation of The Sopranos franchise.
Making bigger than life gangster feature films is an art that should be left to the pros (Scorsese, Coppola). Stepping out of its cable TV lane hasn’t helped The Many Saints of Newark.