The Many Saints of Newark
2021, R, 120 min. Directed by Alan Taylor. Voice by Michael Imperioli. Starring Michael Gandolfini, Alessandro Nivola, Jon Bernthal, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Leslie Odom Jr..
REVIEWED By Beth Sullivan, Fri., Oct. 1, 2021
Some 14 years after we last sat down at Holsten’s diner for an ambiguous goodbye to Tony Soprano, The Sopranos' creator David Chase and show co-writer Lawrence Konner and director Alan Taylor deliver the long-awaited origin story of the New Jersey mob boss: The Many Saints of Newark.
From its beginning, The Many Saints of Newark’s self-awareness of its TV show origins is evident with Taylor’s decision to structure the film as a flashback narrated from the grave by series stalwart Christopher Moltisanti (Imperioli), who within the first five minutes reveals a major spoiler from the show. The reference assumes most of those watching are already familiar with the series’ oeuvre, which could be confusing for those unfamiliar with the HBO show, but it’s a creative decision that speaks to those who might find the film most engrossing. Fervent fans will be pleased to revisit younger versions of the Soprano crew schmoozing, cruising, and – should certain business arrangements require – bruising through Newark’s mafia underworld of the Sixties and Seventies, including Paulie Gualtieri (Magnussen) and Silvio Dante (Magaro), although the latter of whom’s mannerisms come off more as comedic caricature than believable imitation.
Then, of course, there’s the young Tony Soprano, played skillfully by James Gandolfini’s real-life son, Michael Gandolfini. On the one hand, Many Saints aspires to be Tony Soprano’s coming-of-age tale, revealing the cyclical violence and the inflexible if cruel code of famiglia-style justice that would mold Tony’s paradoxical psychology as a husband, father, and mob boss – a man whose words were often the opposite of his actions, and vice versa, sometimes to devastating effect. However, the film’s narrative bulk centers on Christopher’s father and Tony’s “uncle” Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola), a mythic figure only alluded to in the HBO series, who young Tony looks up to in the absence of his incarcerated father (Bernthal). Dickie is a character of excess: uncontrollable rage, extramarital affairs, and an insatiable hunger to collect debts owed (and then some) – all traits we’d come to see, or have seen already, in adult Tony. Intertwined with Dickie’s story is that of Harold McBrayer (Odom Jr. in excellent form), who works for Dickie before severing ties to build his own criminal enterprise amidst the 1976 Newark riots in the wake of police beating a Black cab driver.
It’s the incohesive meshing of these separate narratives where The Many Saints of Newark gets tripped up in spinning a rewarding mob drama. It would be impossible to capture a tale as complex as Chase’s six-season, 86-episode TV epic within the span of two hours, but with so many narratives left unexplored, I walked out of the theatre wishing for a limited TV series rather than a movie. Although The Many Saints of Newark offers an alluring glimpse into Tony Soprano’s birth under a bad sign, it never shows the blue moon in the mobster’s eyes.