The gold standard of movies that serve as prequels for TV series is David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.” In that feature, from 1992, Lynch righted the wrongs of his two-season series—namely, that he’d directed only six of the thirty episodes. He directed “Fire Walk with Me,” and it got widely and wrongly panned at the time of its release precisely because Lynch treated with radical subjectivity the same material that had been handled more conventionally in the TV series. He did more than expand its story; he expanded its imaginative spectrum.
In “The Many Saints of Newark,” the prequel film to “The Sopranos,” the series’ creator, David Chase, takes the opposite approach to tell the coming-of-age story of young Tony Soprano. Chase co-wrote the film’s script with Lawrence Konner and delegated the direction to Alan Taylor, a TV veteran who’d worked on “The Sopranos,” and it shows: far from finding a new way to approach a familiar story, “The Many Saints of Newark” (which opens Friday in theatres and on HBO Max) is more of the series’ same jigsaw-puzzle dramatics, with scenes that do little but drop in information trimmed to fit. But “The Sopranos” at least compensated for its reductive aesthetic with complex patterns of narrative information. “The Many Saints of Newark,” by contrast, reduces characters of potentially mythic power to a handful of defining traits and pins them to a diorama-like backdrop of historical readymades.
The story is set in two time periods—1967, when young Tony is about eleven (played by William Ludwig), and 1971-72, when he’s a teen-ager (played by Michael Gandolfini, the real-life son of James Gandolfini, who, of course, played Tony in the TV series). As the title hints, the story is anchored in the future antihero’s relations with the Moltisanti family (the name means “many saints”) and, in particular, with Tony’s Uncle Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), who’s actually the movie’s protagonist. Dickie is youngish and elegant, at least by the bumptious standards of Newark mobsters, and when the story begins he’s dealing with two separate problems. First, his widowed father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), has remarried a much younger woman from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi)—and an instant sexual spark connects her and Dickie. Second, Dickie runs the Newark numbers racket, including in predominantly Black neighborhoods, where local gangs are cutting into the business—and the fact that Dickie goes way back, to high school, with his Black underling in the Mob, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.), doesn’t prevent him from acting on his unquestioned racism. The movie uses, as a crucial plot point, the Newark riots of 1967, which in real life were sparked by an incident of police brutality against a Black cabdriver named John Smith (whom the movie name-checks). Perversely, “The Many Saints of Newark” makes Dickie himself the proximate cause of that uprising, a kind of wise-guy “Forrest Gump” who bends the arc of history while riding a taxi across the city on Mob business.
Young Tony, meanwhile, is somewhat unmoored. His father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal), gets arrested and then goes to jail. His mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), is bitter, ruthless, and depressed. Tony aspires to become a pro football player, but he has been preparing, unwittingly, for the family business, running a gambling ring in his parochial school among other violent misdeeds. Dickie takes it upon himself to look out for the boy—all the more so since Dickie, having recently committed a murder, seems seized with guilt and hopes for expiation through good works. Dickie also seeks spiritual guidance in prison visits to his Uncle Sally (also played by Liotta), a killer who has found a conscience, and whose advice he craves in his attempts to do good. Yet Dickie keeps on killing, and his efforts to keep Tony honest prove obliviously clumsy and counterproductive.
Tony continues to get into trouble, and his guidance counsellor (Talia Balsam) calls Livia in for a meeting. It is emblematic of the movie’s hollowness that, when the counsellor talks of Tony’s high I.Q. and leadership qualities, they come as news to the viewer—not because Tony isn’t smart or charismatic but because his few scenes are dramatized simplistically, anecdotally, without enough dramatic freedom or give-and-take between characters to suggest any personal substance at all. The movie’s rigidity similarly diminishes its entire cast of characters, rendering the performances of its many noteworthy actors mechanical and depriving them of any sense of presence.
The movie’s incidents don’t breathe the air of any world. They’re conjured out of narrow allusions to broad historical facts and a soundtrack filled with emblematic pop music and nostalgia-stoking commercials. As for the tensions and rigors of Mob life, they go peculiarly unexplored as well. In Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” the need to dispose of blood-stained clothing, after a contract killing, becomes a crucial practicality, and also a silently howling abyss of horror, whereas here the physical and emotional repercussions of bloody murder are nowhere suggested. Hoisting and dragging a massive corpse alone? No problem. Teen-agers disposing of a hijacked truck? Effortless and unquestioned. Gunshots among family members? No consequences. There is one clever plot twist, arising from a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of events, which proves to play a major role in Tony’s criminal destiny, but it is undermined by an earnestness, a lack of humor, a sense of hard-nosed realism that transforms the entire movie into a sort of just-so story. Rather than knowingly deflating its own fantastic hyperbole with a wink, “The Many Saints of Newark” pompously sells itself as a serious vision of history and psychology. The joke is on us.