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edge staff writer


‘The Many Saints of Newark’ a fine (albeit forgettable) ‘Sopranos’ prequel

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Some things are better left alone.

Now, I’m not one to wring my hands and clutch my pearls over Hollywood’s current IP-driven phase. I don’t hate the franchises and sequels and reboots and remakes; certainly not to the same degree as some of my critical peers. It’s not often great cinema, but people (and I include myself there) like what they like.

But sometimes, we get an idea that really seems like a mistake.

“The Many Saints of Newark” – currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max – is an attempt at crafting a prequel to “The Sopranos,” the seminal HBO drama that in many ways redefined what the television medium could do over the course of its six seasons. That series – still considered to be one of the greatest TV shows ever – followed the mobster Tony Soprano through the violence and vulnerability of his complicated life. It remains insightful and enthralling and utterly brilliant, even now.

So did we REALLY need a prequel?

Look, a lot of the behind-the-scenes people involved with “The Sopranos” are here; series creator David Chase wrote the script along with Lawrence Konner and the film’s director Alan Taylor spent serious time behind the camera on the show. There are some wildly talented performers in the cast as well. But there seems to be an absence of focus, a desire to try and tell too many different stories all at once. You probably think this film is a Tony Soprano origin story – I certainly did – but while that’s part of the picture, it is just that – a part. And perhaps not even the main part at that.

In reality, “The Many Saints of Newark” is primarily the story of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). In late 1960s Newark, Dickie is a soldier in the DiMeo crime family. Among his many associates are figures whose names will ring familiar – Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro) and Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola) chief among them. Dickie’s dad is “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), who has just married a much younger Italian woman named Giuseppina (Michela de Rossi). Also part of the scene is one Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) and his brother Junior (Corey Stoll). Johnny is married to Livia (Vera Farmiga) and they have two kids – Anthony (William Ludwig) and Janice (Mattea Conforti).

One of Dickie’s associates is a Black man named Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), who helps handle the numbers racket. While racism is rampant amongst the DiMeo crew, Dickie seems to be the one person who treats Harold with respect. When Newark blows up due to race riots, Harold makes plans to head back to North Carolina.

Meanwhile, Johnny and Junior get arrested, with Johnny winding up sentenced to four years in prison, leaving young Anthony without a guiding male figure in his life – a role that Dickie winds up occupying for his nephew. All this while Dickie is dealing with the aftermath of his father’s unexpected and violent death; he winds up taking up with Giuseppina on the side and starts visiting his father’s twin brother Sally (Liotta) in prison.

As a teenager, Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) is struggling to find his place in the world. He’s a smart kid, but undeniably influenced by the world in which he and his family live. Even when Johnny gets out of prison, Dickie remains something of a guiding force for Tony. Tony gets into his share of scrapes, but ultimately has dreams and ambitions beyond the criminal life.

Dickie is also dealing with the return of Harold, who has decided to start making his own way in the criminal underworld – and doing so by impinging on Dickie’s turf. This goes over about as well as can be expected, leading to plenty of confrontations both inside and outside the family. And as it turns out, when you’re in this kind of business, you never know who your biggest enemy might be.

Technically, “The Many Saints of Newark” does fill that role as a Tony Soprano origin story. And we do get to see some representative moments in his development. However, those moments all seem to be in service of telling the larger story of Dickie Moltisanti. It makes sense in a way – it’s a much easier way to get a look at the inner workings of this crime family, for instance – but at the same time, aren’t we really here for Tony Soprano?

The big issue here is that the storytelling is too sprawling; it’s difficult to invest in anybody because so many characters are flashing across the screen at a given time. Yes, we have the shorthand of being familiar with some of them (though the truth is that some of the young versions of those familiar characters come off more as gimmicky impressions than fully realized people), but there’s still a lot of new people to process and not a lot of narrative in which to process them. The vibe is more or less right, but the truth is that you simply can’t develop a character in a two-hour movie the same way you can over multiple seasons of television.

There are some very good performances here. Nivola is great, though his performance is undermined somewhat by our lack of familiarity with him; he does most of the heavy lifting here. Ditto Odom, who manages to distinguish himself from the masses of supporting characters. Guys like Jon Bernthal and Corey Stoll are excellent as a rule; that’s no different here. Vera Farmiga shines, even if it does occasionally feel like she’s doing Edie Falco. Liotta is low-key great in differentiating between the twins he plays.

As for Michael Gandolfini, he holds his own, though he does occasionally come off as being a little out of his depth. He doesn’t have his dad’s experience, but he has inherited some of the man’s presence, which is no small thing. It’s stunt casting, but it works. Less successful are the caricatures intended to represent many of the other familiar names from “The Sopranos” – too often, those moments come off more as fan fiction or “SNL” bits. It’s not the fault of the actors, but it doesn’t work.

“The Many Saints of Newark” isn’t a terrible movie, but it simply can’t live up to the source material. “The Sopranos” remains one of the most celebrated series ever to grace TV screens, while this movie, I’m sorry to say, is rather forgettable. There’s some interesting stuff here, but it never coalesces, leaving longtime fans and first-time viewers alike somewhat unsatisfied.

As much as it pains me to say it, I think we can probably go ahead and stop believin’ now.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 04 October 2021 10:11


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