Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Irishman

Genre: Crime Drama Biopic
Premise: A mob hit man recalls his relationship with one of the most well-known mobsters in history.
About: Some confusion going on with this one. There’s an identically titled project starring Christopher Walken and Val Kilmer being directed by Jonathan Hensleigh about mobsters in the 70s, but this is not that project, even though it’s also about mobsters in the 70s (I suppose any project titled “The Irishman” is going to be about mobsters in the 70s – indeed there is a third project titled “The Irishman,” so we’ll have to find out what time period that’s set in). This “The Irishman” is based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It’s a hot project due to Martin Scorsese potentially directing the all-star team of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino. Steven Zallian is one of the best writers working today. His credits include American Gangster, Gangs of New York, Mission: Impossible, Clear and Present Danger, and Searching For Bobby Fischer. Of course, he won the Oscar for Schindler’s List back in 1993.
Writer: Steven Zallian (based on aforementioned novel by Charles Brandt)
Details: 135 pages – Draft 1-5, Sept. 15, 2009 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Scorsese’s been in the news a lot lately with the whole Boardwalk Empire thing (note for those who followed that post: I did watch past the 30 minute mark and it got better – the Al Capone moment was indeed cool), his possible reteaming on this project with Pesci, De Niro and Pacino, and his summer blockbuster about a man who infiltrates others’ dreams trying to overcome the death of his wife. Oh wait a minute wait a minute. I’m thinking of Shutter Island. Why do I keep getting those two mixed up? :)

Anyway, The Irishman is yet another Scorsese foray into the criminal underworld, this one taking place in a time he’s very familiar with, the 70s. Actually, it’s not really based in the 70s. Scorsese, lover of flashbacks that he is, actually flashes back within this 70s flashback to the 1950s, where the bulk of the plot takes place.

Our real life hero is an average guy named Frank. Frank tells us (in voice over of course) how sucky it is having to kill people, particularly people you know. Because of the friendship, you must master a cadence by which they’ll never suspect you of ending their life. As soon as they suspect you, they’ll do something crazy, and all bets are off. So stay calm, wait for them to turn their back, and bang bang. Problem solved.

While explaining the art of the kill, we meet Frank’s good friend, Russell Bufalino. Bufalino wants Frank to join him on trip to an old friend’s wedding. Bufalino has some “business” to deal with along the way so he’d prefer to drive instead of fly.

Using this 1970s “present” as a framing device, Frank escorts us into an extended flashback where he tells us how he got here. He first learned to kill back in World War 2. He was involved in a major standoff where Germans fired on him for 130 consecutive days. When the Allied forces finally surrounded the Germans, even though they surrendered, Frank shot every pleading German he could find for the living hell they put him through the last four months.

After the war, Frank took a trucking job, immediately figuring out how to work the system. He’d steal steaks right out of his own truck and sell them on the side. This led to him working for Russell Bufalino (the man he’s taking the road trip with) who was one of the big heavies of the time. If you’ve seen Casino or Goodfellas, this portion of the screenplay will sound familiar, as passages are almost identical to famous passages from those films. “You wanted to bribe a judge, you asked Russell. You weren’t sure how much to give him, Russell would tell you. You wanted to up one of your guys, he’d tell you if you should. You wanted to get rid of someone - you needed Russell’s permission.”

Where the script really picks up is when Bufalino introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa. Now I had no idea this story was about Hoffa, so watching him show up was kind of like Will Smith showing up to your birthday party. Everything went up a level and all of a sudden it hit me: “Oh shit, we’re going to get to find out what happened to Jimmy Hoffa!” And indeed, that’s exactly where they story goes.

For those who don’t know much about Hoffa (don’t feel bad – I didn’t know much myself), he became president of the biggest union in the United States and began lending out money to high class criminals from the union’s pension fund. This changed the face of America, as it infused mobsters with boatloads of money, and allowed them to organize crime in a way it had never been organized before. They say Vegas was built with this money.

Hoffa’s story is pretty fascinating (are you paying attention John Wilkes Booth?), so the entire second act is solidly entertaining. For example, Hoffa’s people donated tons of money to back JFK in the hopes that he would help them get back all the casinos they had built in Cuba, which Fidel Castro had claimed for himself once they severed ties with America. Incensed, Hoffa wanted JFK to kill Castro once he became president. Of course, as we all know, that didn’t go so well, and Cuba was lost forever.

In fact, the backing of JFK came back to haunt Hoffa. Kennedy’s brother Bobby HATED him and went after him relentlessly. Eventually he caught Hoffa on tax evasion and he went to jail for 13 years. During this time, Hoffa wanted a placekeeper union leader he’d be able to elbow out as soon as he finished his time. Unfortunately the man that took his place became super-popular and wouldn’t let Hoffa back in. Hoffa’s insistence that he get that slot back eventually lost him a lot of friends and led to his downfall. Of course, we’re watching all this unfold through Frank’s eyes, and specifically his friendship with Hoffa, who considered Frank one of his closest confidants.

Overall, I really liked The Irishman. While I joke about Scorsese’s love for flashbacks and voice overs, I thought they both worked well here. There’s something sorrowful about these old men, driving across Americana, tired, burnt out, brittle, contrasted against their prime, when they were both masters of the universe. The juxtaposition there was perfect. When you combined that with the larger-than-life character that was Jimmy Hoffa, someone I’ve always wanted to know more about, that's what broke down the wall I usually use to fend off approaching biopics. I mean this is a story that’s fun, interesting, mysterious, suspenseful, dramatic, inventive and challenging. I rarely see a couple of those things in a biopic, much less all of them. Maybe that’s because it isn’t your standard biopic, but that’s a discussion for another day.

My one major criticism of the story is the present day storyline. There just isn’t anything going on in it. They’re driving to a wedding. Every time we cut back to them, they’re still driving to a wedding. There’s no drama there. No conflict. Zallian seems to be using the 70s solely as a “Princess Bride” device – a way to jump forward in the 50s storyline whenever he needs to.

I actually thought the 70s storyline had a ton of potential. In the beginning of the movie, Frank tells us how difficult it is to kill someone you know, so I was sure that was in reference to him having to kill Bufalino. Had we been watching their friendship build over two hours back in the 50s, all the while anticipating Frank having to get rid of him at the end of the trip, that could’ve upped the suspense a hundred-fold. Or maybe we had it backwards, and Bufalino was going to kill Frank. And we're sitting there wondering who's going to kill who. It goes another way, and I think that way is ultimately interesting, but it definitely would've been nice to have something more going on here.

Where it really hurts the script though is in the final act, since we spend the entirety of that act in the present day. So little has happened in that storyline that it lacks the essential pulse that pushes a story to its ultimate conclusion. It’s hard to describe but those last 30 pages (and we are talking about a long script here, so that contributes to it) feel like the last 60 minutes of a long vacation. Your plane has landed, you’re barely able to stand, you’re waiting for your luggage, and all you want to do is get home and sleep. I’m not sure that’s the way this story should've ended.

But hey, on the whole, this was really enjoyable, especially the second act, which as we know is the hardest act to master. Of the four scripts I reviewed this week, I expected to enjoy this one the least, and it ended up being the best by a mile. So for that reason, it’s definitely worth the read.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Never neglect a storyline. I see this a lot, particularly in this kind of setup where two storylines are going on and one of those storylines carries the bulk of the plot. It’s easy to say, “Well, the 70s storyline isn’t really that important so let’s just make it adequate.” But it’s always better if there’s something interesting going on in the lesser storyline. Even in The Princess Bride, there’s conflict in the Fred Savage/Grandpa storyline because Fred Savage is pretending like he doesn’t care or want to hear the story. That back and forth eventually leads to them becoming closer, giving that storyline a legitimate beginning, middle, and end just like the story he tells has a beginning, middle and end. So I’m by no means saying there needs to be shootouts or excessive fighting in the 70s storyline here – but it would be nice if it wasn’t so benign.