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The Many Saints of Newark Sets Itself an Impossible Task — and Does Okay

The jumble of characters and subplots in the Sopranos prequel makes for a less-than-focused production that can’t stack up to the original series. But then, what can?

Michael Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in The Many Saints of Newark. (Warner Bros.)

On January 10, 1999, TV audiences enjoyed their inaugural ride-along with Tony Soprano, as the now-iconic character, played by the late James Gandolfini, made his way out of the Lincoln Tunnel for the very first time. Offering momentary glimpses of the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the dilapidated remnants of heavy industry, the opening credits of HBO’s landmark series The Sopranos roll their way through Newark and into the suburbs, before finally settling in the McMansion-dotted borough of North Caldwell, New Jersey.

In the show’s first scene, Tony meets Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), seeking treatment related to a recent panic attack. “The morning of the day I got sick, I’d been thinking,” he explains, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

“Many Americans, I think, feel that way,” Melfi replies, before Tony continues: “I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me, but in a lot of ways, he had it better. He had his people, they had their standards, they had their pride. Today, what do we got?”

Though the show and its characters would develop tremendously over the course of the next eighty-five episodes, the essential ingredients were all present in its first few minutes. At its core, The Sopranos is a parable about American society at the end of history — a society where grand common narratives have collapsed, the past has been memory-holed, and culture has been flattened amid a cheery-but-tenuous sense of prosperity.

Watching it today, in the shadow of political sclerosis and imperial decline, the general aura of pessimism and ugliness feels oddly refreshing, as does the show’s unconcealed contempt for the pampered suburban squares so cherished by America’s two major political parties. As Willy Staley observed in his excellent recent long read on The Sopranos’ current renaissance, these themes are one reason it’s become a point of reference for many on the millennial left. “The best is over” might reflect how many people actually feel, but it’s also more or less the inverse of the narrative we’re steadily spoon-fed by political and cultural officialdom.

In The Sopranos, people immersed in the depraved violence of organized crime are regularly heard complaining about gangs, thieves, and drug dealers. Centering on the figure of Tony himself — a McMansion-owning New Jersey dad who also happens to be a lethal mob boss — the show’s world is one that rests on a brutality and sin that can never be formally or outwardly acknowledged. Everything may carry the stench of decadence, hypocrisy, and rot, but the official line still comes in the cheery cadence of suburban church luncheons and PTA meetings. Though The Sopranos may have gone off the air in 2007, the structuring contradiction of its universe feels, if anything, even more resonant today.

Among the show’s many narrative innovations, few stand out quite like the therapy scenes series creator David Chase opted to introduce in the first moments of the pilot. The most interesting of these invariably take us back to Tony’s childhood, where we are given both a whiff of his earliest encounters with criminality and the relationships that have molded his psyche (notably with his depressed, overbearing mother and his patriarchal father).

Memory is an important facet of The Sopranos, and, with the help of Dr Melfi, Tony’s unpleasant journeys into the recesses of his past do yield insights into how his present came to be. Most often, though, the past takes the form of either comforting fiction or hollow nostalgia. Like the crumbling factories in the show’s opening credits, it is flotsam more than living memory — consisting mainly of a series of flashes and allusions that the show’s emotionally repressed characters are unwilling to probe for very long.

For all these reasons, the idea of a Sopranos prequel, finally brought to us this month by way of The Many Saints of Newark, has both a great deal of potential and an arguably impossible task to carry out. This chasm makes itself felt throughout the film, which was somewhat misleadingly billed as a Tony Soprano origin story but is ultimately much more concerned with the world surrounding the show’s iconic antihero than with young Tony himself.

In large part, Many Saints wants to tell us the story of Dickie Moltisanti — Tony’s uncle ex officio, father of Michael Imperioli’s unforgettable Christopher, and a kind of structuring absence throughout the series. But the film also wants to show us something of nearly every character alive during its timeline, which roughly spans the period of the 1967 Newark riots to the early 1970s.

Owing to the scale of these ambitions, Many Saints can’t quite decide what kind of movie it wants to be. There’s enough material packed into the film’s two-hour running time for an entire series and, as pure fan service, it thus has plenty to offer. As Dickie, Alessandro Nivola ably gives us a character who has obvious and deliberate parallels with the older Tony: he’s a striving, patriarchal mobster beset by quasi-Oedipal pathology, determined to steer his nephew away from the family business. This relationship is, in many ways, the narrative fulcrum of the story, but the movie’s crowded assortment of other plots and subplots ultimately leaves it sadly underdeveloped.

A crowded cast of familiar (and unfamiliar) Sopranos characters in The Many Saints of Newark. (Warner Bros.)

In the role of a sixteen-year-old Tony caught somewhere between innocence and delinquency, Michael Gandolfini is more than believable, and he’s a pleasure to watch whenever he’s on-screen (during the film’s first act, a younger Tony is played by William Ludwig). This is, unfortunately, too little, as Many Saints swerves from various parts of Dickie’s world of crime to his romance with his erstwhile stepmother, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), and the perspective of Leslie Odom Jr’s Harold McBrayer — an ambitious black associate of Dickie’s who starts his own rival criminal enterprise. The Newark riots themselves are more mise-en-scène than actual subject, giving Dickie a pretext to disappear the body after the murder of his father (played by Ray Liotta, who he violently kills for abusing Giuseppina and insulting his mother).

With its eighty-six episodes, The Sopranos always gave itself the breathing room to show rather than tell — and still left lots of room for ambiguity. With a mere 120 minutes at its disposal, The Many Saints of Newark must mostly tell, and the result sells many of its characters unfortunately short. Odom Jr’s Harold is cool and charismatic, but his most important contribution to the film’s actual narrative is hooking up with the doomed Giuseppina in an all-too-brief scene that tells us little about how and why their connection came about. Giuseppina, who carries her own aspirations of economic independence, has depth and most resembles the show’s tragic Adriana La Cerva, but she is forced to play second fiddle to Dickie, thanks to the film’s overflow of plots.

Longtime fans will certainly appreciate the many cameos made by classic Sopranos characters, but some of these come so hard and fast that you’re liable to miss them on the first viewing (it was only by way of Wikipedia, for example, that I realized two peripheral characters were meant to be Jackie Aprile and Artie Bucco). In a few places, this fan service slides into the realm of less-than-believable — notably vis-à-vis the film’s version of Silvio Dante, who, though portrayed with all the right physical ticks by John Magaro, seems too old to be the same man we know from the series. (In The Sopranos, Steven Van Zandt’s Silvio has a daughter the same age as Meadow Soprano and was once part of a “little crew” that included Tony, Jackie, and Ralph Cifaretto; in Many Saints, he’s already a grown man old enough to be a card-carrying gangster experiencing hair loss.)

There’s a fine line between giving fans their proverbial red meat from Satriale’s (the famous pork store naturally makes an appearance) and riffing on the source material in excess. Occasionally, the film tilts decidedly toward the latter and, in attempting to do too much in too little time, it tries to tick boxes while leaving what its third act ultimately decides is the key plotline — the relationship between Dickie and Tony — frustratingly underexplored.

Though we do catch glimpses of Tony’s slide from relative innocence to more sinister delinquency, we never actually get to see him cross the threshold separating bad behavior and full-blown criminality. As Owen Gleiberman argues in his review, there’s even a case to be made that the film’s key murder would push Tony away from Dickie’s universe rather than pull him toward it — though the Many Saints’ final arc wants it to be his formative jolt into the world of organized crime. (For what it’s worth, there’s a casual and throwaway quality to this killing that feels just right, and that does indeed reveal something to us about Tony’s trajectory.)

The film’s best scene might be the one that features an extended encounter between Tony and his mother, Livia (made famous by the late Nancy Marchand and played here by Vera Farmiga). Though Tony has been caught cheating on a test, Livia is nonetheless informed by her son’s school counselor that he possesses the qualities of a leader. Doing her best to show him affection, Tony’s mother then lets it slip that a doctor has tried to prescribe her an antidepressant — and turns hostile when he encourages her to give it a try. The scene is subtle, well acted, and provides added insight into one of Tony Soprano’s most important relationships. Unfortunately, the film is unable to slow down enough to yield many other moments with the same depth or emotional complexity — though not for want of good intentions and great performances.

With its solid writing and elegant direction, The Many Saints of Newark plausibly captures the world as a young Tony Soprano would have known it, and it serves up plenty of treats for fans of the immortal HBO series. If it can’t match the breathtaking scale and depth of The Sopranos in 120 minutes, it’s because virtually nothing ever could.