Review: The Many Saints of Newark

Score: B

Director: Alan Taylor

Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rated: R

There are plenty of miniseries that should have been movies. But The Many Saints of Newark is the rare movie that should have been a miniseries. As a film and a prequel to The Sopranos, it covers a lot of ground. But it still feels like there's a lot more to tell. Maybe that means we'll get "Sopranos Story" in the future. But as it stands, this can't help but feel a little unsatisfying.

For fans of the show, this is an opportunity to explore the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). He was long dead by the time we first met Tony, but his presence loomed large over everything. Those who come in cold might be a little baffled. They'll have at least one major event spoiled, and will miss a lot of the inside jokes. Even though it pales in comparison to one of the greatest series ever, there's a lot to admire.

Moltisanti - which literally means "many saints" - starts in the shadow of his father (Ray Liotta), an old-school mob boss who often turns his violent temper on his family. After his death, Dickie takes over his life, plunging further into the darkness of organized crime. He even starts sleeping with his dad's new wife (Michela de Rossi), which gives new meaning to the oft-repeated epithet of "motherfucker." But as many mob stories go, there's no way for a man to keep his hands clean in that world. The lines he swore not to cross inevitably get crossed.

Dickie's conflicts come from two major sources: a turf war started by his former numbers runner Harold (an excellent Leslie Odom, Jr.), and his attempts to keep his nephew Tony (Michael Gandolfini) out of trouble. It's impossible to be both a good capo and a good example, which leads to fractured relationships and bad business. Nivola is such a good actor that we can see the weariness on his face, the toll of his guilt piling up. Scenes where he visits his uncle (Ray Liotta) in prison are some of the best in the film, as Dickie searches for absolution from a "priest" who couldn't possibly care less.

But there are some major flaws that can't be ignored. While the acting is generally great across the board, two performances stand out in the wrong way. I'm generally a fan of both John Magaro and Billy Magnussen, but they're just doing bad impressions of Silvio and Paulie, respectively. The former in particular is especially distracting. And while the production design - recreating the New Jersey of the '60s and '70s - is immaculate, the digital photography robs it of any vibrancy.

And there's the big elephant in the room. While the film addresses the Newark riots of 1967, paying attention to how it affects Harold's arc, it's still mostly seen through the eyes of its white characters. They view the shake-ups as mere inconveniences, or covers for their own crimes. There's very little grappling with any of the reasons for the eruption of violence. (Then again, it's not as if the show was a shining example of how to handle race.)

The Sopranos was a once-in-a-lifetime collision of the right talent telling the right story at the right time. The Many Saints of Newark has a great team in front of and behind the camera, but it can't quite conjure the same magic.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.