Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK
Rated R, 120 minutes.
Director: Alan Taylor
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Ray Liotta, Leslie Odom Jr., Michela De Rossi, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, Michael Gandolfini, William Ludwig, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Samson Moeakiola
“It’s the wanting,” says contrite convict Sally Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) as he counsels his wayward mobster nephew Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) in THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK. This incisive line referencing the Buddhist philosophy takes on greater meaning as it’s also what gets every character in trouble in the cinematic prequel to the massively popular HBO series THE SOPRANOS. Their want for power, money, independence, respect and a better life leads to a drastic downfall. Director Alan Taylor, along with screenwriters David Chase and Lawrence Konner, thread the needle beautifully delivering a deeply engrossing origin story.
Those looking for something solely focused on Tony Soprano (played here in younger years by William Ludwig and teenage years by Michael Gandolfini) and his youthful exploits might be slightly disappointed. While the filmmakers do explore his formative years, they’re far more interested in the backstory behind his role model Uncle Dickie’s rise to power – and how that inspires Tony’s future endeavors. As Tony’s grandfather Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti (Liotta in a dual role) returns from Italy with new, much younger bride Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) in tow, stable son Dickie and the extended crime family welcome him back during a precarious period in the late 60s. In Newark, New Jersey, there are two distinct worlds – one populated by Blacks and the other by Whites. Soundtrack cues emphasize the disparity, shifting from Motown to pop standards depending on the neighborhood. Tensions between Black residents and the police are reaching a fevered pitch and Whites are content to scoff and turn a blind eye. Yet soon these racial relations will ignite (which is symbolically represented throughout the picture).
Not only are significant cultural shifts happening in the zeitgeist, so are irrevocable changes on the domestic front. Moltisanti’s made man Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), a lackey who collects on debts in the poor neighborhoods, is dissatisfied in his current position under Dickie’s watch. Feeling like a traitor to his community and also under-appreciated by his mafia bosses, the power inequality wears on his psyche. When Aldo is killed and Tony’s dad Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal) is thrown into jail, Dickie becomes the de-facto leader of the syndicate, throwing the family power dynamic into disarray. This affects his relationships with Junior (Corey Stoll), who makes himself a continual target for Dickie’s passive-aggressiveness, and now-mistress Giuseppina, whose yearning to start her own business becomes her biggest weakness. Tony is also learning from Dickie’s bad influence, but occasionally waffles on making good.
Taylor, Chase and Konner are tasked to keep many plates spinning – and they do so with varying degrees of success. While some of the storylines feel episodic in nature, particularly those in the third act that deal with Tony and his relationship with his mom Livia (Vera Farmiga) and those dealing with resentment and vengeance towards Dickie, the overarching thematic context gives the picture a cinematic texture. It’s soap opera-esque drama (especially when it comes to the twin brothers Liotta plays) combined with Greek tragedy that you can’t look away from. By blessedly not going overboard on fan service, rather lightly peppering inside jokes and call-backs to the series, the filmmakers keep the proceedings fresh for those unfamiliar and exhilarating for the die-hard fans. Levity is also perfectly handled, from the obvious (like young Tony’s witty comeback to Dickie who mocks the comic book he’s reading) to the almost innocuous (like the Joe Pesci LP Liotta paws in lock-up).
That said, there are a few blights. Some of the Moltisanti supporting crew are dealt short shrift, oft becoming punchlines rather than being integral to the story. Characters like Paulie (Billy Magnussen), Big Pussy (Samson Moeakiola), and Silvio (John Magaro) suffer from an absence of internality. Their inclusion is welcomed, but it’s frustrating to see them relegated to tertiary roles when this is an opportunity to integrate them fluidly. There’s also a moment that’s highly questionable when it comes to Giuseppina’s motivations, leading us to believe that, despite its profundity, it’s done at the behest of the screenwriter needing to move another character’s arc along.
Even though none of us needed a prologue for the family we used to spend our Sunday nights with (and Monday mornings discussing the shenanigans at the water cooler), it’s the wanting that gave us a good product.
Grade: 4 out of 5
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK opens in theaters and begins streaming on HBOMax on October 1.