Now let me teach you how to smoke like a cool guy, capisce?
dir: Alan Taylor
Does there need to be a prequel movie to one of the most famous prestige tv series of all time? Not really, not when you have so many episodes already of the show. Do we learn anything startling and new about the characters of the series that we didn’t know or didn’t know we cared about before? Absolutely not. This is really a flick no-one asked for that no-one needed.
But I still got a lot out of it. This is, despite the very weird framing device, an interesting story about someone who was important to the main character of The Sopranos who we never got to really see because they were long dead before the scope of the series started.
It’s less, very much less an origin story for Tony Soprano, and more a story about his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, ably played by Alessandro Nivola, who’s been great in a lot of things and is very solid here. The problem from his perspective might be, must be, that Dickie is just a puppet at the hands of fate. The other characters, including the one doing the voiceover, all have a pre-determined fate, and so does Dicky, but for him we know he doesn’t make it out of the 1970s.
Why, becomes our question. Well, and this is about as pretentious as the series creator David Chase has ever gotten, it’s because Dickie’s story is a tragedy. A Greek tragedy, despite the fact that they’re Italian-Americans.
There’s a lot in the film, and not all of it is that interesting. I have to confess that the bits dealing with Tony (who later on in the film is played by James Gandolfini’s son Michael, which really does your head in a bit) weren’t as fundamental as everything Dickie does when Tony isn’t around. But we’re meant to see what happens to Dickie, and what he does or doesn’t do, as being central to why Tony became the way he is.
It’s important to remind myself that The Sopranos used the trappings and clichés of the mafia genre to tell a story, primarily, that wasn’t about life in the mafia. It was always about the therapy, far more so than the strippers, the mob machinations and deals, and the murders.
Through 6 seasons the questions were asked and sometimes answered as to why a person ends up the way they are, and whether any amount of therapy can ultimately change them, or improve them, or help them and the people around them. The series quite definitively came down on the side of charming sociopaths, like Tony, ultimately not changing at all, but finding new ways to manipulate the people around them through using the verbiage and cover of therapy speak.
Put more simplistically, it can help okay people with stuff, but it makes monsters worse.
The main character of the show literally decides nothing means anything, so he might as well keep being the monster he’s always been.
The blame, or source of that monstrousness in the series was often laid at the feet of Tony’s mother Livia, and here she’s played by Vera Fermiga, who does incredible work conjuring the actress that played Tony’s mum in the series, being Nancy Marchand. There is much more given to how being the wife of a low-level mobster like Tony’s dad Johnny (Jon Bernthal) exacerbated her depression, and how a climate of shame about mental health issues in the 60s and 70s only made things way worse.
There’s a whole subplot where Tony, having heard of a new wonder-drug called something like Elvia to treat whatever they were calling depression back then, is convinced that if only he can get his mother to take some, everything will be all right. It’s almost like he’s come back from the future, and thinks that if only he can stop her from becoming the cold, manipulative, passive aggressive champion that she becomes, then maybe he won’t be so awful either. Of course we know that’s never going to fly, but it plays so much of a role in the back half of the film.
But, like I intimated earlier, it’s Dickie’s story, and I haven’t even gotten to the part that kicks everything off and seals his doom, and his eventual son’s doom.
If you bring up Greek Tragedy, you can’t get more fundamental than the clearly Oedipal tale that’s spun here. You may think having a main character called Dickie is, I dunno, a bit naff, but the character’s father is called Hollywood Dick Moltisanti, and is played by Ray Liotta. Ray fucking Liotta. He tends to play raging botoxed testicles these days, and is no different here as Hollywood. He’s an awful, racist (like all the characters here are), sexist, brutish piece of shit, and it’s like the film is daring us not to have him killed and us want it to happen. He returns from Italy with a very young bride called Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to replace his previous, now dead wife.
If you can’t see where this is going already, then you haven’t read nearly enough books or seen nearly enough movies. The father builds and builds in monstrousness until Dickie loses his shit and kills the old bastard.
Did he kill him because he was awful, did he kill him because his dad was assaulting his new wife, did he kill him because he insulted Dickie’s mother? It doesn’t matter. In Oedipus and Oedipus Rex, the plays the mythic construction is based on, the reasons why Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, even with him not knowing who they are, don’t matter. These acts are such an affront to the gods, go so against the conscience and the sensibilities of all living, thinking creatures, that divine retribution must come. The fundamental sin must be expiated.
Dickie seems to know that on a level beyond the rational. In one of the many “cute”, as in, totally conceited and hammy “we don’t give a fuck we do whatever we want” stabs at onscreen audacity, Dickie chooses to visit someone we’ve never heard of before. You see, his awful Hollywood Dick of a dad has a brother. Would you know it’s his twin brother, serving a long, long sentence in jail.
And wouldn’t you fucking know it, he’s also played by Ray Liotta.
In completely and perfect contrast to the earlier, now dead character, Liotta plays this lifer jailbird character quite differently. He’s cold, and distant, but whenever Dickie speaks, Salvatore, as his uncle is known, sees through most of Dickie’s lies.
Dickie feels like he has to make up for killing his own father, and visits his uncle to tell him his brother is no more, and to bring him some kind of Italian dessert, perhaps called something like gabagool or Yo Gabba Gabba. The uncle doesn’t want it, and Dickie struggles to spit out that he wants to do a good deed, somehow.
“Miles. Birth of the Cool.” That’s all Salvatore wants. Dickie visits several more times, all to never say what he’s actually thinking, always after doing more and more awful things, and Salvatore tries to help with distant words of wisdom, but he’s know it’s too late.
It’s funny, to me, when Sal starts talking about Buddhism, in contrast to where Dickie starts talking about his marriage and how his wife can’t have kids, and how badly Dickie wants a son.
“It’s the wanting.” All the suffering in the world, comes from the wanting. People who can’t deal with the wanting, well, they unleash suffering upon themselves and all the people around them.
Into this world will come a son, eventually, being Christopher, our helpful and very dead narrator, but the through-line for that act of creation must come through his step-mother, his father’s widow, Giuseppina, and if the gods didn’t like patricide, I don’t think they’re fans of incest either.
If the Fates and Furies are all aligned against Dickie, then does that make for a dull journey? Well, we always have the feeling that these were choices Dickie made, even after every terrible thing that he does, when he sits there looking at his hands wondering why he did what he just did, when was the fatal choice made? Do these men of violence, these gangsters, even have autonomy?
Are they these pieces of shit because of the families they grew up in, and the love that was either given or withheld, or is it because they learned that there’s no merit to impulse control, that to be a man means killing those who mock or embarrass you, and that everything you want should be yours unless some stronger person can stop you? And even then just wait until their back is turned and shoot them in the back of the head?
The only one at peace is Sal, in his prison cell, who no longer wants much of anything other than jazz records to listen to. Maybe the only other one to come out unscathed is Harold. Oh, I haven’t made much mention of Harold, have I? Leslie Odom Jnr stars as an ancillary character who starts off an ally of Dickie’s, but eventually he has his consciousness raised during a time of race riots and the mafia treating African-Americans even worse than they treat Italian-Americans. He decides being a runner for the mob is just another form of slavery, and if African-Americans are going to improve their lot in life, they need to be running crime for themselves. His whole deal is so enjoyable and so energetic that it needed an entire other film to tell that story properly. He’s also very good in the role, in a flick where the racial stuff is very complicated, and unresolved (everyone is so racist it hurts).
It's a big, sprawling film that somehow jams 3 hours of stuff into a 2 hour running time, but even then there are parts that I couldn’t give a fuck about. A lot of the stuff with Tony, about his bullshit at high school, and even worse about his feelings, that felt so pat and extraneous. So many other interesting things were going on, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about that stuff.
I don’t really think this flick is one that stands on its own, even if Dickie’s story could have been told as is without all the other Soprano’s related fan-service, because so much time is spent cluing us in to references to the show, and who’s who in the zoo, which would be utterly stultifying to a non-fan. There is some humour there, in that none of these pieces of shit are meant to be taken seriously, so showing what bumbling fools young Sylvio or young Paulie Walnuts are doesn’t hurt, worrying about getting blood on their shirts and then having litres of the stuff poured everywhere. And Dickie’s end, when it comes, and why it comes, is meant to make you roll your eyes, instead of feel sorrow for the doom he created for himself.
Still, I got something out of it. And hearing the classic intro music, right at the end, had exactly the bittersweet joyous feeling the creator intended.
6 times this thing of ours just never seems worth it long term out of 10
“That's the guy, my uncle Tony. The guy I went to hell for.” – well, it’s good to have a reason - The Many Saints of Newark