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THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK gets 6/10 Many mouths to feed


Directed by Alan Taylor

Starring Alessandro Nivola, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Michael Gandolfini, Leslie Odom, Jr.

6/10

After multiple Covid related pushbacks to its release date, The Many Saints of Newark is here. For fans of that iconic, list-topping, pillar of cultural longevity and show of shows, The Sopranos, this prequel is a snappily edited, lovingly written and quite capably performed love note to characters many of us know so well, and to a time and place many of us don’t.

The place is Newark, of course, and the time is 1967. Dick ‘Hollywood’ Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) runs the DiMeo crime family, ably assisted and supported by the likes of Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), his brother Junior (Corey Stoll), and Dick’s son Richard, AKA Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Newark is burning, as the race riots of that period simmer and explode on a nightly basis. Between the protests and the pork store the younger Moltisanti (which is Italian for Many Saints) is trying to maintain a working relationship with mid-level hustler Harold (Leslie Odom, Jr.).

The anticipation that fans held through the years of production, delays, and production delays of fresh context being added to Sopranos lore is quenched sufficiently, and in ways too rewarding to reference even vaguely, lest they be spoilt. This film is not light on homages and payoffs (AKA setups) relating to those long-established character idiosyncrasies. Whilst the wink-wink nudge-nudge stuff fortunately never strays into on-the-nose territory past the crying baby Christopher scene shown in the trailer, references are crammed in like a Satriale’s provolone sandwich and are just as nourishing.

The script picks up a hearty rhythm early, establishing but never dwelling on multiple threads and scything between them at a decent clip. While the film is certainly, feel-wise, a believable addition to Sopranos canon, it spreads itself too thin at times. Cutting furiously between our A-story and dueling B-stories, Many Saints struggles the most with finding the right balance between what we want to see and what we need to see. Storylines pay off and develop to varying degrees, reinforcing the capped stakes a “time and place” film like this carries. It leaves you wanting more in a film that runs fast for two hours and could have benefited from running longer. 

Speaking of varsity athletes, Michael Gandolfini is very good as a teenage Tony Soprano, the role made iconic by his late father James. Michael as Tony, peering through those calculating eyes before they were filled with menace, is the soul of the movie, and is given just the right amount of responsibility to showcase that.

The scenes with Tony and Dickie provide a lot of welcome new fat to chew for Sopranos nuffies, but it is the interactions with Tony and Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga) that are startlingly unnerving, quite haunting, and terribly effective. Farmiga is far and away the MVP in this one, rendering an incredibly accurate Mrs Soprano, meritoriously honoring the character and the late great Nancy Marchand’s portrayal of her. Farmiga’s Livia is played at the perfect intersection of imitation and interpretation, and the other pre-established characters find their own balances between the two, pretty much all to great effect.

John Magaro returns to gangster-playing form after his recent attempt at Meyer Lansky (Lansky) with his note-perfect and aptly hilarious offering of Silvio. Corey Stoll is a commendably sufficient Junior, and Billy Magnussen, tasked with the difficult job of doing justice to Tony Sirico’s Paulie Walnuts, is admirably original in a surprisingly nuanced job that will grow on you. Though the always reliable Bernthal doesn’t get much to do plot-wise, and sometimes finds notes or quirks oddly incongruent with the Johnny Boy briefly portrayed throughout the series. 

The Many Saints of Newark has many mouths to feed, and while it never buckles under the weight of its own hefty obligations, it is noticeably contained by them. The competing storylines steal each other’s momentum, which diminishes the effectiveness of the movie’s climax. This was the caveat coming in making a film about The Sopranos, with Tony Soprano but not necessarily about Tony Soprano. Still, from the very opening scene, Many Saints provides closure and context for content-starved Sopranos fans, and at the end of the day, in this thing of ours, you gotta take the good with the bad. Capisce?

CAIN CIALLELLA

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