Prodigal Sons: The Many Saints of Newark

The bad reviews of The Many Saints of Newark are weird.

What were they expecting?

It’s fine. I’m telling you–it’s fine.

And when it comes to feature adaptations of beloved TV shows, “fine” is probably the best we can hope for. It’s an endeavor destined to disappoint, one that must, by definition, assimilate a multitude of competing elements.

First and foremost, it must squeeze a narrative created for extended viewing over many seasons of television into a feature film template. It must also contend with the complex expectations of its viewers, who bring 20 years of deep attachment with them. To succeed on these terms, the film must be all things to all people–a Herculean, all but impossible task.

Like I said, it’s fine.

Let’s start with the good.

For one, it’s funny. The way The Sopranos was funny. There are the odd, quirky little moments of humanity and absurdity that defined the show. When modern gangster movies take themselves too seriously, they fail. David Chase, like Scorsese before him, saw the absurdity in the milieu, the burlesque, the softness inside all the hardness. The “beep baseball” vignette arrives right on time, reminding us where we are. Ditto Vera Farmiga’s performance as Livia Soprano, and for that matter, the twin miracles of Corey Stoll’s Uncle Junior and John Magaro’s Silvio Dante.

I have read reviews that characterize these performances as schticky impressions. Let me give you a different take: these are really good actors pulling off a very hard task. There is fun and joy there. Let it be so. Never mind the many, many layers of meta-performance inherent to Italian-American mob culture (on film, anyway). That’s part of the fun–the theatricality of it all. Sociopathic killers who obsess over their hair and jewelry, who put on fancy costumes and affect an operatic worldview to mask their internal emptiness.

So you look at Sil as played by Steven Van Zandt–outlandish suits, bad hairpiece, eccentric manner–and fault John Magaro for playing him the same way and nailing it? Sil comes straight out of the world of stock characters–I’ll be damned if he doesn’t have an analogue in Commedia Dell’arte (though I’ll also be damned if I take the time to look it up)–a peripheral oddball, a man of few words. What do you want? A dark, revisionsit, psychologically complex portrait of the consigliere as a young man? This ain’t The Dark Knight. Get the fuck outta here!

Many Saints‘ narrative is often meandering and indecisive. There’s a not-fully-baked quality that seems to want to tell three or four stories without putting all its narrative energy behind any one. This is not a completely bad thing, though. The Sopranos often had an askew quality to its storytelling.

The main story here involves Dickie Moltisanti, Christopher’s father and mentor to young Tony, and his relationship with Harold McBrayer, a Black enforcer who breaks off from the Italian mob and attempts to start his own criminal enterprise.

The film uses the Newark race riots of 1967 as a centerpiece and continually returns, albeit in leisurely fashion, to the topics of racism and Black urban oppression. Though worthy topics, they do have a somewhat ancillary quality to them in that they are peripheral to the story of the Moltisantis and the Sopranos.

Or are they?

That was one great thing about The Sopranos’ show–everything in it could be fodder for a doctoral dissertation, an endless analysis of meaning and deeper meaning. The parallels between the Italian immigrant and African-American experience, racism therein; the shifting demographics of urban America, systemic racism therein; the micro and macro levels of American capitalism, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Or–it could all just be a good story, enjoyable to watch, touching on small, personal themes of familial dysfunction, neuroticism, fate and free will. 

The Many Saints of Newark does both and therefore does not completely do either. But like I said, it’s fine. More than fine. It’s worth watching. I liked it enough that I decided to spill seven or eight hundred meandering, not-fully-baked words over it on a Sunday morning.

Watch for the moment when the Sopranos decamp for the suburbs. It’s a blip in the story, but it points to the genesis of the TV show. The Sopranos was always inseparable from its New Jerseyness. It lived in a peculiarly late 20th Century American milieu–the blue collar/white collar suburbs of the east coast. Not the classy, urban/suburban enclaves of the genteel upper middle class, The Sopranos’ suburbs were garish and second rate. McMansionvilles inhabited by doctors and lawyers sure, but also by contractors, small business owners and the occasional waste management consultant.

Its positioning here was part of the show’s appeal. It told a story that lived at the crossroads of broad American themes–upward mobility and manifest destiny, crushing capitalism and might makes right, omnivorous consumerism and old-world simplicity.

Saints births these themes when Tony and his goof-off pals hijack the ice cream truck. We see him–like A.J. to come, like so many of us privileged American males given everything save a modicum of personal responsibility–wreaking havoc, causing chaos via whatever avenues are open to him. By choice rather than necessity.

It’s a funny scene, but a jarring one, foreshadowing the series’ nihilistic undertones.

But don’t worry. Saints never comes near The Sopranos’ levels of blackness and despair.

Like I said, it’s fine. And in this case, fine is good enough.

2 thoughts on “Prodigal Sons: The Many Saints of Newark

  1. Good piece; thanks. This reminds me how The Deadwood movie hit me-I had so much invested in the original that anything that came after was just a bon-bon, but I was grateful it wasn’t a travesty–and it had some really fine moments.

    Liked by 1 person

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