When “The Sopranos” went black in 2007, concluding an instantly fabled eight-year run by famously withholding any definitive conclusion, it felt like a challenge to the audience, for some even a thumbing of the nose. Storytellers, especially on television, were expected to provide happy endings or at the very least a sense of closure. Creator David Chase gave us neither.
That’s one of the many reasons “The Many Saints of Newark,” the disjointed prequel film to the series, feels so off. This branching out of the Soprano family tree is disappointingly eager-to-please stuffed with cameos, callbacks and character details that aren’t just negligible in insight but as entertainment. It’s a tray of Carmela’s ziti piled high with cannoli and gabagool, then drenched in espresso and red wine – a waste of its ingredients.
Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a time jump in between, “Many Saints” centers on mobster Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle and Christopher’s father. (Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher on the show, is heard sparingly in voice-over, his character disgruntled in death.) Focusing on Dickie, who was mentioned but never seen on the show’s six seasons, theoretically offers a new lens through which to view the members of the Soprano and Moltisanti families. But like virtually every character in the film, Dickie is an unengaging archetype: a pale Xerox of someone far more compelling.
Trying far from his best to be a good man and constantly frustrated that it’s not enough, the suave, violent Dickie is a proto-Tony. After the premature death of his father (Ray Liotta), he even seeks the counsel of a detached but caring confidant with whom he cannot be completely honest. Dickie is also an unrepentant horndog, taking up with his father’s young new wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), who left Italy to pursue her version of the American Dream. Nivola is suitably intense and unpredictable, but the parallels to Tony only call attention to how underwritten his character is.
Otherwise, “Many Saints” is full of old names with new (often far more conventionally attractive) faces. Tony first appears as a young scofflaw (William Ludwig) and later a clever but aimless high schooler (Michael Gandolfini, son of James Gandolfini) with an equal chance of joining the family business or escaping it. (Chase and his co-writer Lawrence Konner smartly opt to treat the preordained outcome as a Greek tragedy rather than a suspenseful mystery, but they fail to conjure the desired sense of doom and dramatic irony.)
We also see younger iterations of Tony’s father, Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal), his mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), and his salty Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), as well as his henchmen Paulie (a questionably cast Billy Magnussen) and Silvio (a very funny John Magaro). Among the least-essential scenes are glimpses of a teenage Artie and Carmela and the origin story of Junior’s cane despite its fateful epilogue.
“The Sopranos” was about a group of middle-aged mobsters nostalgic for an era of manly invincibility and self-sacrificing loyalty that probably never existed. “Make the mob great again” was practically Tony and his crew’s unofficial slogan. “Many Saints” unnecessarily confirms the wrongheadedness of their illusions: Tony’s elders were just as ruthlessly petty and even more viciously sexist and virulently racist than his generation.
At least the show gave us great female characters in Carmela and Meadow Soprano and an achingly sympathetic one in Adriana. The movie has no three-dimensional women, anesthetizing the effect of one femicide while offering up an endless visual feast for the straight-male gaze. But it’s the roiling, on-the-cusp-of-white-flight Newark setting that’s truly squandered – and with it, “Many Saints’ ” Black characters. The 1967 race riot in that city – one of nearly 160 across the U.S. that summer – enjoys a remembrance but is ultimately reduced to a conveniently chaotic backdrop for corpse disposal.
A patchy story line about Dickie’s rivalry with a resentful Black underling named Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) – Dickie’s racial prejudices prevent him from imagining that Harold might want the throne for himself – fares even worse. That character’s underdevelopment inadvertently illustrates the chasm between critiquing the insidiousness of white bigotry and racialized self-pity (which Chase has done consistently and well on “The Sopranos”) and actually writing well-rounded characters of color (which he has attempted with less success).
Director Alan Taylor, who won an Emmy for helming the season 6 episode “Kennedy and Heidi,” can certainly surprise with jolts of grisly violence, which are sometimes followed immediately by effective humor. But a sourness in tone keeps the proceedings from achieving the series’ signature black wit, adding to the film’s ungainliness. Alternately claustrophobic and epic compositions can’t make up for the myriad story lines (including one frustrating red herring) and pacing issues that periodically lose sight of the stakes at hand. At least there’s no shortage of manicotti to console us when “Many Saints” doesn’t answer our prayers.
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