So much tragedy in your life.
Those words are spoken in jail from one murderer to another. The two men are different: One is convicted and wearing a state-issued jumpsuit. The other is also wearing a suit. Only his is designer.
There’s a good deal of hypocrisy and irony in The Many Saints of Newark, the new Sopranos prequel movie. How much of it is intentional is one of the questions that occupy the mind.
Back to that tragedy line, it’s utter by a Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) to nephew Dickie (Alessandro Nivola). The elder Moltisanti killed a made man when he was younger and will spend the rest of his life behind bars. He knows that, and he’s made peace with it. He spends his days reading and listening to jazz music. He’s even discovered Buddhism. He sees through Dickie like cellophane. Dickie wants absolution. Moltisanti knows that only comes through punishment.
Liotta’s Moltisanti is the best part of Many Saints. He’s the only one who seems conscious of consequences. Everyone else is playing dress-up. So much so that affectations become cartoony. Even director Alan Taylor seems more interested in period details than in the story or the characters.
The script, penned by David Chase and Lawrence Konner, bounces abruptly from character to character, sometimes feeling like the narrator (Michael Imperioli) has ADHD or is uninterested. Dickie is the movie’s anchor, but then there’s the matter of his mistress (Michela de Rossi), a former underling turned competition (Leslie Odom Jr.), and the centerpiece of The Sopranos TV show, Tony Soprano (played as a child by William Ludwig and as a teen by Michael Gandolfini).
The poster’s tagline, “Who made Tony Soprano?” feels misleading. Yes, Dickie is the influence that eventually pushes Tony Soprano into his role of mob boss, but, here, young Tony gets only glimpses of backroom dealings and the abrupt violence that rules Dickie’s life. He wants to be closer to Dickie. That part comes across clear; the why, not as much.
The Many Saints of Newark feels incomplete. Even rushed. There are more characters than the script has space for, and while the first half of the movie takes place amidst the Newark race riots of 1967, it serves little service beyond a couple of useful cover-ups. Gandolfini is good, as is Nivola, but neither performance feels self-contained. It feels more like fan service than exploration. I’m sure that for those familiar with The Sopranos, there is a pleasure of returning to this world and these characters. For those who aren’t, there isn’t much here to create that want.
The Many Saints of Newark: A Sopranos Story (2021)
Directed by Alan Taylor
Screenplay by David Chase, Lawrence Konner
Based on characters created by David Chase
Produced by David Chase, Lawrence Konner, Nicole Lambert
Starring: Michael Gandolfini, Alessandro Nivola, Ray Liotta, Leslie Odom Jr., Michela De Rossi, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll
Warner Bros., Rated R, Running time 120 minutes, Opens Oct. 1, 2021, in theaters and via HBO Max.