David Chase fills in the blanks of the story behind the story we all know
In its best moments, The Many Saints of Newark is a gripping gangster story anchored by one powerhouse performance, one sentimental performance, and a slew of supporting ones that offer up satisfying blasts of nostalgia. Set in late 1960s Newark, the film builds its story around the heretofore oft-mentioned, never seen Dickie Molitsanti (Alessandro Nivola). It’s a natural story to tell in a movie, one that The Sopranos referenced but never built out. While it’s hard to say the film is essential, it at least avoids the cash-grab trap of being pure fan service. You know what? It’s good. Really good at times, and a satisfying return to the world David Chase created over 20 years ago.
Set against the backdrop of the Newark riots of 1967, the film tracks Dickie as he and his crew navigate their own criminal dealings and the slow rise of a rival crew, led by Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). The similarities and differences between Italian Americans and Black Americans came up frequently throughout the show and it never truly felt like it was handled in a meaningful way. Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner acquit themselves better this time around. Harold is a fine character elevated by a great performance by the reliably strong Odom Jr. As much as Harold helps drive the plot and gets a few lovely moments to build depth, it feels there is more meat on that bone. In another timeline, a movie or show built around Harold would be great. Alas.
Helping Dickie get into and navigate trouble are a slew of familiar faces like Livia (Vera Farmiga), Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal), Paulie (Billy Magnussen), Silvio (John Magaro), and Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), among others. For the most part the cast does well to give performances rather than just impressive impressions. The standouts are Stoll, who gives either the best or second best performance in the film, and Farmiga, whose take on Livia is terrifying. They’re also the two established characters who get the most significant material to play, with everyone else left to fight for scraps. Among the B-team, Magnussen makes the biggest impact in his limited screen time, with a pitch perfect rendition of Paulie Walnuts and all of the character’s ticks.
Then there’s the Tony of it all.
Much has been made of Michael Gandolfini stepping into the role played by his late father, James Gandolfini. He does right by his father. Obviously, he looks like Tony, but he gives a real performance, not an imitation. His Tony is mischievous, playful, and vulnerable. With his dad in jail and his mom an emotional wrecking ball, Tony desperately needs and wants an adult to look up to. He finds that in Dickie, who keeps an eye on the kid and tries to get him on the path to a better life. But Dickie only knows one kind of life and we know what the future holds in store for Tony Soprano. Despite most viewers knowing where Tony and Dickie’s stories end up, the movie is able to inject a sense of tragedy to go along with the inevitable.
The Many Saints of Newark is a rock solid, if sometimes undercooked crime movie. With a tight two hour runtime and two distinct stories it needs to establish and tie together, the movie moves a little too quickly at times. Still, The Many Saints of Newark is a rewarding trip down memory lane, filling in key pieces of The Sopranos’s mythology. The Many Saints of Newark, like The Sopranos before it, is in constant dialogue between matters of family and The Family. That dichotomy is fertile ground thematically and dramatically. It’s really easy to say “if you liked the show, then you’ll probably like the movie,” and be done with it. That’s the case with most series resurrections, especially in the current cottage industry of reheats, remakes, and redoes. To a degree, that’s a fair way to sum up the movie. I think the movie stands on its own but, obviously, it will be more rewarding for people who are familiar with the show. I watched the film three times over the weekend hoping for some kind of major revelation to hit me, something unique to add to the legacy of The Sopranos. But each time I was just happy to be back in this world and I’m looking forward to returning to it again, soon.
The Many Saints of Newark is in theaters and on HBO Max.