Let’s take a moment to remember why The Sopranos was such ground-breaking television in its time. It threw down a marker for HBO as a cable network that could produce shows that the broadcast networks couldn’t. Much more than that, it was a TV drama whose main character was a bad man by most metrics, yet held fascinating contradictions as a suburban dad in a fuzzy bathrobe who also happened to be a genius-level strategic thinker, navigating the hazards of his profession with his skill at manipulating everyone around him (except, of course, that mother of his). Now comes the big-screen prequel entitled The Many Saints of Newark, and while it flashes some potential for an expanded Sopranos universe, it’s mostly a pale copy of the TV show.
Contrary to the misleading promotional materials, the film is concerned with much more than the origins of Tony Soprano. The story spans about five years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and is narrated from the grave by a deceased Christopher Moltisanti (voiced by Michael Imperioli). He tells the story of his father Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), whose father Hollywood Dick Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) returns from Italy with a bride in her early 20s (Michela de Rossi) who speaks no English. Dickie’s dirty secret, at least as far as his fellow mafiosi are concerned, is that he’s making his money from Black customers, with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) running a numbers racket for him. The Black Power movement and the Italians’ casual racism convince Harold that he should be working for himself, and it looks like all-out war will break out between his African-American gangsters and the Moltisanti-Sopranos. All this is witnessed by Tony (played by William Ludwig as a boy and Michael Gandolfini as a teenager), whose uncle Dickie is like a surrogate father to him more than his father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), especially with the latter doing four and a half in prison for assault.
There’s enough material in here for a season of TV, yet the storytelling feels slack. Maybe it’s because the humorous interludes fall flat. Maybe it’s because the movie doesn’t give us much new insight about the characters from the show — Vera Farmiga has little to do except throw more hissyfits as Livia Soprano. Maybe it’s because The Sopranos at its best demonstrated how mob life led to violence against women, whereas the movie merely demonstrates violence against women, which is much less edifying.
Or maybe mafia guys are just inherently uninteresting. Most people who spend lots of time around real-life mobsters report that they are coarse, boorish, and not given to introspection, and that’s what we find here. The Sopranos was great because its main character was an exception to this, but there aren’t any characters in the film as deep as the grown-up Tony. The movie is supposed to be Dickie’s tragedy as a man who hurts everyone he cares about, regrets leading Tony into a life of crime, and brings about his own downfall by needlessly pissing off the elder Sopranos. With all this, the character simply doesn’t support that kind of weight as he murders his abusive father and takes his gorgeous stepmother as his mistress. The 49-year-old Nivola has been a plus character actor in an enormous range of roles and films (the cracked sensei in The Art of Self-Defense, the Orthodox rabbi in Disobedience, the soccer star in the Goal! movies), but carrying this movie is a task beyond him.
The young Gandolfini does some fine work as a younger version of the role that made his late father’s career, even though the plot leaves off before this violent-tempered but bright, music-loving, and salvageable teen fully becomes the monster we know as the adult Tony. With the show’s creator David Chase on board, you know that the soundtrack will have crushing good taste in music from the period. Liotta also plays Hollywood Dick’s incarcerated identical twin brother who’s over all the lies that mobsters tell, and when Dickie informs him of someone’s death without mentioning murder, he delivers a wearily cynical, “What kind of God, huh?” Odom also loses his star polish to good effect in the role of an enterprising thug who knows what he’s doing as he goes up against the mafia. You sense that the movie should have been about his character instead. At least the supporting roles remain strong in this Sopranos story, but next to the show, The Many Saints of Newark comes off like Sunday gravy from a supermarket jar.
The Many Saints of Newark
Starring Alessandro Nivola and Leslie Odom Jr. Directed by Alan Taylor. Written by Lawrence Konner and David Chase. Rated R.