THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK (2021)
A look at the formative years of New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano.
Sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and reboots are dominating film and television, for better or for worse. Audiences have been inundated with content that’s familiar, but different, which is a significant gamble, depending on the source material. Revisiting a well-regarded film or series is a tall task in any case, but for HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) specifically, the odds of doing it successfully are next to impossible. The show raised the bar and set the standard for what a TV series could be in the 21st-century, and thanks to streaming, The Sopranos continues to find new fans. David Chase created a phenomenon that critiqued capitalism, toxic masculinity, and mental health stigmas (amongst many other things), all through the lens of a gangster crime drama that was also very funny at times.
How do you add to that original piece and revisit it without tarnishing its legacy? It’s a risk that could be worth the reward, but Chase’s prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark, sadly underwhelms.
The story follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who’s made a name for himself as a soldier in the DiMeo crime family. It’s 1967, and his father, ‘Hollywood Dick, Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), has just returned from vacation with a new wife called Giueseppina (Michela De Rossi), but it isn’t a warm welcome home. Johnny Boy Soprano (Tony’s father played by Jon Bernthal) and Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll) are arrested in front of a young Tony and Janice, then sentenced to four years in prison shortly after. With his father locked away, a young Tony is having difficulty staying out of trouble, having started a gambling ring at school. With Johnny Boy locked up, Dickie becomes a surrogate father figure for Tony, something he doesn’t feel great about. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of the Newark riots, a result of racial tensions reaching a boiling point after two cops pull over and beat a black taxi driver. Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), one of Dickie’s former associates, is liberated by the movement and decides to leave New Jersey for North Carolina.
Four years pass, and the characters find themselves in the same place. Harold returns from North Carolina and decides he wants to carve out his own place in the crime world with his own operation. Tony (James Gandolfini’s real-life son Michael Gandolfini) is now in high school, but still up to his same old tricks, regularly getting into trouble with his other friends. And Dickie, just like Tony in the series, struggles to earn and keep the respect of his crew and his family.
The film is aware of its audience and understands the majority of people flocking to see Many Saints are fans of the HBO drama. Unfortunately, Chase, writer Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor (who both worked on the show) spend too much time catering to that demographic. Throughout The Sopranos’ eight-year run, there were plenty of references to incidents in the past, and it feels like the film goes out of its way to accommodate these moments. Sure, it would have been interesting to have some Easter Eggs, but the call-backs to the series are far from effortless. In the series, Junior Soprano makes an off-hand remark about Tony not having the makings of a varsity athlete. So, of course, the film features multiple instances where a young Tony expresses his desire to be a football player once he’s older. By the time he repeats his interest at a party, where a young Junior delivers the same line from the series, the reference feels forced and the laughs don’t follow. The filmmakers spend too much time telegraphing their desire to tip their cap instead of organically weaving in those little nuggets.
Even some of the scenes within the film feel as though they’ve been done before. Dickie and his girlfriend end up having a verbal altercation because of her desire to open a salon, but Dickie has reservations. The fight escalates and ends with Dickie storming out of his girlfriend’s apartment. The scene matches a similar dynamic between Tony and Carmella in regards to the spec house build Tony funds. The two scenarios feel so similar, and Many Saints even goes so far as to make Dickie resemble Tony. Specifically, there’s a shot of Dickie eating his breakfast alone with his hair dishevelled, wearing a tank-top and underwear; a look Tony adorned many times throughout the show’s six seasons.
But that parallel is the only interesting piece about the scene because the rest of it feels regurgitated. And for those going into Many Saints without having seen the series, they’re going to be frustrated by friends tapping them on the shoulder throughout explaining why this event or that person is important. Above all else, the film falls flat because it sits firmly within the mob movie genre without adding any significant elements. Yes, the film is set during the race riots during the late-1960s, but Harold—Leslie Odom Jr.’s character—is barely explored. Instead of examining Harold’s aspirations and challenges in living out the American Dream, he’s largely presented in the context of his relationship with Dickie. Harold’s character is much more intriguing, but the surface is barely scratched, instead of having the focus remain on Dickie and Tony.
Thematically, Many Saints touches on similar areas the show explored. Toxic masculinity rears its ugly head once again and lingers throughout the movie. None of the men in Dickie’s crew are likeable and they remind audiences of that constantly. They all have a propensity for cheating on their spouses, using racial slurs, and committing violence against women. Once again, these are ideas that have been explored before on The Sopranos, and the film doesn’t have anything new to offer. So when Dickie’s father pushes his new wife down the stairs because she left her feminine products out in the bathroom, the result is off-putting, to say the least, and doesn’t add anything substantial to the film.
Even the mental health themes the film touches on are one-dimensional. Tony suggests his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) start taking antidepressants for her mood disorder, but she’s skeptical. When Tony speaks with Dickie, he voices the same reservations. Mental health has come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s, and the brief plot point highlights the challenges those people faced. But again, that is where the exploration ends.
There are also lacklustre performances from the actors. Nivola is tasked with playing Dickie, a character who, in Sopranos lore, was one of Tony’s biggest influences growing up. Unfortunately, Nivola is unable to separate himself from the others in his crew, despite his presence in almost every scene. Perhaps it’s due in part to the screenplay, but Nivola struggles to convey the motivations and desires of his character, making it hard for audiences to get a read on Dickie. Even more damning are the performances, or cosplay would be a better descriptor, from the actors playing younger versions of Paulie, Pussy, and Silvio, with the latter being the most egregious. There’s a dramatic scene toward the end of the film between Dickie and Sylvio, with Sylvio trying to impart some of his wisdom. However, John Magaro is so committed to his shtick, the scene becomes distracting and misses the mark. There are a couple of stronger performances from Stoll and Farmiga, but their roles are fairly minor and it reduces their impact.
Initially, revisiting the Sopranos universe sounded like a welcome idea to long-time fans, but The Many Saints of Newark just doesn’t cut it. David Chase has already stated he’s interested in writing additional prequels, but if he decides to go down that road, the effort will have to be much better, unless he wants to tarnsh the legacy of the Sopranos any further.
USA | 2021 | 120 MINUTES | 2.391:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Alan Taylor.
writers: David Chase & Lawrence Konner (based on characters in ‘The Sopranos’ created by David Chase).
starring: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandfolfini, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi, John Magaro, Ray Liotta & Vera Farmiga.