Alan Taylor’s The Many Saints of Newark is the entertaining but somewhat unconvincing prequel to The Sopranos. The film chronicles the early life of Tony Soprano, played in a legendary performance by the late James Gandolfini, yet by the end of it you don’t really feel as if it’s really a convincing origin story, because it’s not really much of an origin story. Rather, the film feels like a two hour long episode, and until we get another one, the jury is kind of out on this one.
Admitted, I was late to The Sopranos party. The show began on HBO in 1999, and ran until its controversial finale in 2007. I watched it last year, right before the pandemic started, and it’s truly a masterpiece of television. Perhaps a slow burn at times, yet when it got to where it was going, the show really cooked. The show was essentially a mobster sitcom, until the jokes were set aside and the show really revealed what cards it was playing. The beauty of the series was simply in its character development, as details that seemed unimportant were actually important, and the deeper you got into the show, the richer the character development became.
Watching The Many Saints of Newark, it’s easy to sense that the film is going for the same sort of approach. The film feels like a series of episodes and events- some engaging, some less so- that leave you wondering where it’s going until it gets there. The trouble with The Many Saints of Newark though is that, by the time this particular trip reaches its destination, it can’t really be said that the landing is stuck successfully. Some of these characters feel fleshed out, yet the one that really counts isn’t as convincing. Again, another film pending.
While this does serve as an origin story of Tony Soprano and his upbringing, the film’s main focus is on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle, and the father of Tony’s future right hand man and confidante, Christopher (played in the series by Michael Imperioli, who also serves as the film’s occasional narrator). Christopher tells us, from the grave, that Tony killed him by strangling him. Well, if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know that that is not the case, so an admirable move in shaking up the narrative, but seeing as this particular Soprano’s story doesn’t even dive into that, it seems a little unnecessary.
Anyways, the film is set in New Jersey in the 60’s and the 70’s, as we see Dickie hanging out the meat shop with Tony’s future friends Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) and Silvio (John Magaro). Both of these impersonations are fine, but they mostly just feel like impersonations. Anyways, we also see Dickie’s relationship with his father (Ray Liotta, who also plays his uncle in a weird piece of casting that isn’t acknowledged) and his new step mother (Gabriella Piazza, a strong breakout), who serves more to the story than you’d think. We also see Dickie’s rivalry with a fella named Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), and I know that they were trying to add a bit of history to the mix with this storyline, but it’s the least compelling one at play.
Yet amidst juggling all of this, The Many Saints of Newark revolves around Dickie’s close relationship with his nephew Tony (who in the teen years is played by Gandolfini’s son, Michael). Dickie is mentioned a good amount in the show, and it’s easy to see the echoes between his relationship with Tony, and Tony’s relationship with Christopher. What is also done decently well is the depiction of Tony’s mother Livia (Vera Farmiga, one of the many sporting a prosthetic nose), who is treated pretty poorly by her husband (Jon Bernthal), but also it’s pretty easy to see how she became such a whackjob.
What isn’t so easy to see though is Tony’s descent into evil. Perhaps it’s because the character lingers so much in the background for so much of The Many Saints of Newark that by the time the film starts trying to convince you of his turn to the dark side, it just doesn’t quite work. Well actually, is that what they were going for? Because by the time reached its conclusion, that’s what it seemed like, but also, its intentions seem a bit vague. Is there to be more of these Sopranos stories, or was this a one time deal? If it’s the latter, the film probably needed another 40 minutes or so to let the Tony character breathe a bit.
If the film had succeeded with its ending, then the rating would be higher. It’s a shame too because there are good things in The Many Saints of Newark. The best of them being Nivola, who has been around a long time, delivering strong work for years, and knocking this out of the park. The film is cast well, and while Michael Gandolfini has a bit to learn about acting, the rest of the performances feel solid. All of the stuff involving the Sopranos and the Moltisantis and such remains interesting, particularly if you have an affection for the show. Sure, we have seen many mobster movies like it, but eh, the violence in this is jolting enough to be effective.
When the whole things done though, The Sopranos was a masterpiece of television, and The Many Saints of Newark isn’t a masterpiece of film. Perhaps part of the issue is that, despite its handsome production values and capturing the essence of the show well enough, the film feels like a season of television. What The Sopranos achieved in 13 hours, The Many Saints of Newark tries to achieve in two, and they just don’t quite. The ending of The Sopranos is among the most talked about and, in the eyes of many, hugely frustrating for its ambiguity and abruptness. I happened to think it was brilliant. The ending of The Many Saints of Newark left me feeling a similar frustration. Unless, of course, there’s another episode around the corner.