The Many Saints of Newark review – atmospheric and compelling

October 1, 2021
M.N. Miller 0
Film Reviews, HBO Max


The Many Saints of Newark is atmospheric and compelling, with a performance from Alessandro Nivola that finds that sweet spot where male emotional vulnerability turns into toxicity.

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The Many Saints of Newark is atmospheric and compelling, with a performance from Alessandro Nivola that finds that sweet spot where male emotional vulnerability turns into toxicity.

This review of The Many Saints of Newark does not contain spoilers — the film can be streamed on HBO Max. 

Is it possible for a film to be satisfying yet disappointing? It was an impossible task for The Sopranos creator David Chase and long-time series director Alan Taylor to live up to the hype of the classic series in a prequel film. The Many Saints of Newark is overindulgent entertainment, to be frank. An overstuffed bag of fond memories, Easter eggs, slight nods, and a reveal that’s strictly for diehards that even they perhaps won’t see coming.

Chase and scribe Lawrence Konner wrote the script, who wrote the light but entertaining series episodes “Second Opinions” and “Mergers and Acquisition.” It centers on the legend of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Throughout the series, this character was referenced as Tony’s Uncle, and he looked out for his nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli, narrating the film from the grave). Anthony looks up to this uncle from a young child to his teenage years (played by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael). Mostly because his father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal), is off for a stay in prison.

The script covers a crucial moment in the series, where Tony is a child and sees his father arrested for the first time at a local theme park. Around the time of the 1967 race riots where tensions boiled over, and the neighborhood was changing. Dickie’s friend, Harold (One Night in Miami’s Leslie Odom, Jr.) is one of his drug runners. He represents the rift in the neighborhood and blockbusting that follows.

This is when Anthony found out his father and the entire family were different from others. A bunch of wise guys. Dickie takes Anthony under his wing at the urging of Livia (an outstanding Vera Farmiga) while also running the family business. At the same time, while Johnny is the “away,” he draws the ire of Junior (Corey Stoll). Even drawing more anger is the way Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), beats his new bride (Michela De Rossi) that reminds Dickie of what he did to his mother.

Chase and Konner spend an excessive amount of time trying to hit Sopranos fan’s erogenous zones. There are numerous references and scenes to the series lore like Holsten’s restaurant or bringing moments to life mentioned in scenes while Tony was under the care of Dr. Melfi. For example, the reminiscence of Johnny shooting a bullet through Livia’s beehive. You also know when they reference television trays, something big is coming — including that damn blackbird.

Tony and his crew of Sil, P***y, and Jackie were a crew, per the series, when they were kids. The series has Tony considerably younger — even in the series, the writers never boxed themselves in with the details. In particular, the actors who play the classic characters, First Cow’s John Magaro, really capture the essence and mannerisms. You’ll notice Billy Magnussen’s hand motions as Pauly Walnuts (unfortunately he couldn’t manage Tony Sirico’s legendary laugh). Magaro though is in a class by himself. He does a better “Sil” than Steven Van Zandt. Though, should we take the series too seriously? As Nivola recently noted in an interview, the show was about a family of liars– no one tells the truth.

Nivola carries the film. An actor who had the pivotal role in Junebug and one of the best performances in 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense. A gifted performer who finds the sweet spot where male vulnerability turns into toxicity. Nivola’s Moltisanti doesn’t know how to process feelings of trauma and abandonment. He is one of the few who has regrets about his actions. It’s a world full of rage stemming from behavioral issues. The result is bloody violence because no one took mental health seriously back then. It’s a performance that had more depth than one would expect. Nivola’s performance, no matter how despicable his character can be, is a sight to behold. Many of the other characters have an emotional depth that rings hollow at times.

The Many Saints of Newark works as mob/crime drama, but this is a gift and a curse; spending so much time trying to hit every dedicated fan sweet spot makes it feel like they are trying to fit in more than the 120-minute running time. What’s missing is the trademark humor where the beloved characters are the butt of the joke. While I thought Odom’s role as Harold was interesting, it never boils over to the showdown between him and Dickie that showed promise. His character looks like an attempt to create a spinoff. Even more likely a lead or be an intricate part of another Sopranos story.

The Many Saints of Newark is an indulgence. There isn’t any arguing that. It may not live up to the series lore, but it’s a solid crime drama that’s atmospheric and uncompromising.

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