THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK (2021) has as its subtitle “A SOPRANOS story.” It would have been a much better movie had it really been a SOPRANOS story!
Technically, it is, as it provides backstory for a young Tony Soprano, but the movie is really about Dickie Moltisanti, Tony’s favorite uncle and the man who influenced his rise into the mob world. And at the end of the day, Dickie Moltisanti is a far less compelling character than Tony Soprano. The film suffers for this.
Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is the father of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), a prominent character on the HBO hit TV series THE SOPRANOS (1999-2007), on which the characters in this movie are based. And by far that’s the best part of THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, seeing characters decades before they appeared on THE SOPRANOS. Imperioli even provides some voice-over narration as Christopher from beyond the grave.
The actors here do a phenomenal job in that regard. Vera Farmiga is spot on as Tony Soprano’s mother, Livia, a role played so well by Nancy Marchand for two seasons on THE SOPRANOS before her untimely death from lung cancer. Farmiga nails the character, and we get to see her cold, detached relationship with Tony already having an affect on him as a teenager. Farmiga has had plenty of practice playing monster moms, having played Norman Bates’ mother Norma on the acclaimed TV show BATES MOTEL (2013-17).
Likewise, Corey Stoll is perfect as Tony’s other uncle, Junior, who was having back trouble even back in the 1970s. Alexandra Intrator is also spot on as Tony’s older sister Janice. My personal favorite was watching Billy Magnussen ham it up as a young Paulie.
But the most intriguing casting by far is Michael Gandolfini as the teenage Tony Soprano. Gandolfini is the son of James Gandolfini who play Tony Soprano on THE SOPRANOS, who tragically passed away in 2013 at the age of 51 from a heart attack. Michael Ganolfini is excellent in the role, and he does capture the same expressions, smiles, ways of speaking, and nuances as his father, and so you really do believe you are watching a young Tony Soprano on screen. This was definitely a highlight of the movie.
But like I said, the main focus here is on Dickie Moltisanti. The story takes place first in the late 1960s and then switches to the early 1970s, amidst the backdrop of racial tensions and violence. As such, one of Dickie’s enforcers, a black man, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.), is forced to flee New Jersey because of a murder warrant, but when the action switches to the 1970s, Harold returns and decides to take charge and run his own numbers racket, giving Dickie stiff competition.
Not only is Dickie dealing with trying to fend off Harold and his new organization, but he has an abusive father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who is now beating his new young wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), which Dickie takes offense to and eventually takes action to take down his father, and afterwards makes Giuseppina his mistress. He also has a complicated relationship with his nephew Tony, who worships him. Dickie likes Tony too and goes back and forth between including and excluding the teen in his mob world, and by the time he realizes he should be doing everything he can to shield Tony from the underworld, it’s too late.
While Alessandro Nivola is quite good as Dickie Moltisanti, the character just isn’t that interesting. The film would have worked far better had the story focused more on young Tony.
Michela De Rossi is excellent as Giuseppina Moltisanti, as she exhibits both strength and independence, and yet possesses a willingness to play the role of the “kept woman”, which constantly has her fearing for her life at the hands of the Moltisanti men. De Rossi delivers one of the best performances in the movie.
Fans of Leslie Odom Jr. will enjoy his considerable screen time as rising criminal Harold McBrayer, but again his screen time takes away from Tony’s. And Jon Bernthal rounds out the cast with a solid performance as Tony Soprano’s father, Johnny Soprano. The scenes between Bernthal and Vera Farmiga as Livia are some of the livelier ones in the movie.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK was directed by Alan Taylor. The film captures the look of the period, and the pacing is okay, deliberate, slow in some parts, but never dull. The violence is there, one scene in particular involving a tire riveter. Taylor also directed THOR: DARK WORLD (2013) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015), two movies I somewhat enjoyed. THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, while a far different movie from those two, is comparable in terms of quality to those actioners.
Lawrence Konner wrote the screenplay, based on the characters created by David Chase. The dialogue is decent, but the story subpar, and the connections to Tony Soprano nowhere near as fleshed out as they needed to be. While technically this is a Sopranos story, it’s kind of a Sopranos-lite story. Still, the screenplay is better than some earlier Konner vehicles, films like SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) and the dreadful Tim Burton PLANET OF THE APES (2001) remake.
If you haven’t seen THE SOPRANOS, you may still enjoy THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, since it tells a self-contained story about Dickie Moltisanti. But since my favorite parts of the movie all had to do with its connections to THE SOPRANOS, I’m guessing if you haven’t seen the show you won’t enjoy the movie as much.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK is a decent mobster movie, but as a SOPRANOS story, it’s far less riveting than expected.
Fans of the TV series deserve more.