The Sopranos Goes Phantom Menace on Us

We asked our film critic — who has somehow never seen The Sopranos — to watch HBO’s new prequel film The Many Saints of Newark to see if it could work on its own merits.

Alessandro Nivola portrays Tony Soprano’s uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, in The Many Saints of Newark. (Warner Bros.)

I have to assume that The Sopranos is fifty times better than its prequel The Many Saints of Newark, currently playing in theaters and on HBO Max, because everyone loves the series, and the film is as boring as hell.

I must confess I’m one of the handful of Americans who’ve never watched The Sopranos — I don’t know why. Reliable sources all over the map tell me it’s great. I swear I even offered to recuse myself from reviewing this film on the grounds of my Sopranos ignorance! Because, hey, maybe this film is riveting if you loved the series? In the same way, apparently, that Star Wars prequels and sequels and spin-offs are riveting, because, as a fan once told me on behalf of his fellow Star Wars fans, “We’d go cheer for Obi-Wan Kenobi Mows His Lawn”?

Maybe this film is Tony Soprano Mows His Lawn?

Anyway, here’s the nonfan reaction: I’m still not sure how this prequel manages to be so boring. True, it does bear the curse of the prestigious period film, with high production values, a handsome aesthetic, solid performances by excellent actors, stately pacing, and serious themes. In short, dullsville.

Though, on the other hand, it’s got every kind of dramatic plot event — gangsters’ turf wars, family betrayals, patricide, race riots, angry and oppressed Mafia wives at their breaking point, and so on. Yet even the unpleasantly strenuous murders in this film don’t do much but make you wince and say, “Ew.”

Somehow, it all remains at a numbing remove from the audience. The film seems to have been structured not to give you the payoff to any narrative buildup, as if it were too high-quality to indulge you in your vulgar desires for a socko ending. I can’t describe the last scenes because, spoilers and all, but let’s just say any flicker of interest you may have sustained in whether something or other would finally happen is extinguished by a damp series of fuhgeddaboudit conclusions.

This was all very deliberate, it turns out. The wet-firecracker ending of the film written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner is bound to set off Sopranos fans, many of whom hated the controversial ending of the series that was Chase’s brainchild. According to lead actor Alessandro Nivola in interviews about the blah finale of The Many Saints of Newark, “It was a hilarious bait and switch that David pulled off . . .”

Oh, hilarious! Just a riot, yeah, when it all turns out to feel like a waste of time.

I don’t know about you, but lately, even more than usual, I’m just in no mood for this kind of thing. I want my entertainment lurid and engrossing, or scary as hell, or wildly hilarious, or in some way cranked up to eleven on the diversion meter, and there better be a “wow” finish. It’s tough out here, and we don’t need any cleverer-than-thou entertainment industry types saying, “Yoinks! You thought this was gonna be enthralling, didn’t ya? Ha ha!”

The plot is only partly the logical prequel to The Sopranos, that is, informing us how troubled mob boss Tony Soprano, played by the late, great James Gandolfini, got to be that way. Here, he’s still a kid (William Ludwig), and then a college-bound, football-playing teenager (played sweetly by James Gandolfini’s lookalike son, Michael), hero-worshipping his apparently kindly uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).

Dickie, the main character in the prequel, is the seemingly dutiful son and right-hand man of 1960s mob boss “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), whose sensational-looking young wife brought over from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), obsesses Dickie from the moment she arrives in a way that can only mean trouble.

We’re supposed to be engrossed in the main story line, about Dickie’s vain struggle to be a local “saint,” both using and attempting to redeem his mob-boss sins by being a rock-solid reliable figure as boss, family man, and community member. Meanwhile, of course, it’s Mafia business as usual, all of it brutal, but that doesn’t trouble Dickie nearly as much as his literally murderous rages in private life.

That sounds like it should be interesting, but somehow it never ignites. Maybe it’s because there’s too much talk about motivations in the film overall, including a gratuitous voice-over that keeps making the subtext into text, as, for example, when Dickie literally announces that he wants to do a “good deed” immediately after he’s done a really, really bad deed. None of this rises to the impact level of, say, a Mafia don attending his child’s cathedral christening with the same air of quiet reverence as his family while his extended “family” of henchmen are gunning down gang rivals all over the city, as in the famous crosscutting climactic scenes of The Godfather.

There’s also a casting issue, in that Alessandro Nivola, though a fine actor, just doesn’t physically look like a tortured soul. As unfair as it is, cinema is an unforgiving form when it comes to physicality. It’s very difficult to act your way around the bone structure of your face, or the size and shape of your eyes, in close-ups big enough to show us your pores. Young Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, for example, had those huge, burning-coal eyes that always suggested internal torment. Nivola’s got a hard, vulpine quality to his face that makes him an effective villain, but there’s no feature of his that gives away a sense of his divided self tearing him apart.

Ray Liotta is the most compelling figure in the film, playing a dual role as the crude, blustery “Hollywood Dick” and his restrained, intellectual, jazz-loving twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti, who’s doing life in prison after killing a made man at age twenty-five. It’s gimmicky but delightful when a terrific actor plays twins with opposed personalities. That’s a real, old-time Hollywood move, and naturally, it was my favorite part of the film. Liotta gets to pull out all the stops demonstrating how convincingly he can play the other brother, with diction so precise it borders on the finicky, a nice touch in a character who looks as genuinely scary as Sally does.

Ah, Ray Liotta, he shoulda been a contender! It’s tragic to think of that mysteriously truncated career of his, and all that Goodfellas charisma gone to waste over the decades while we’ve put up with vanilla bores like Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner and Hugh Jackman in leading roles.

Speaking of actors, Vera Farmiga is good as the unnerving matriarch Livia Soprano, and Leslie Odom Jr does surprisingly strong work as Harold McBrayer, given how he’s kept on a low simmer and never really allowed to boil over as an underling of Dickie’s, whose resentment at the aggressive racism of the Italian bosses impels him to found a rival black gang to challenge the Mafia at their own game.

But some nice performances, on their own, don’t make a good film, when the writing and the directing just aren’t there. Emmy-winning director Alan Taylor, who’s worked on many admired television series such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, and Game of Thrones, seems not to have been informed that film is commonly held to be a director’s medium. He never rises above the limitations set by the script, which — ha ha! — really doesn’t pan out.