In The Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, almost everyone makes an impression of their original counterpart. You have John Magaro doing the familiar stiff gait and Silvio Dante tilt of his head. (The famous pompadour, let’s find out, is a wig, covering a merciless balding pattern.) You have Billy Magnuson giving us his take on the tough, loyal and not too bright Paulie Walnuts. Corey Stoll, in oversized glasses, gives us a tangy and fussy Junior Soprano. As for Vera Farmiga, as the matriarch of the Sopranos Livia, she seems to do more of Edie Falco’s Carmela than Nancy Marchand’s Livia, which is perhaps intentional, with Odipe’s complex being what it is.
Indeed, the only person not making an impression is Michael Gandolfini, playing the younger version of the character who made his late father a superstar. It’s probably because he doesn’t have to. With his big head, slightly crooked nose and puppy eyes, Junior Gandolfini looks strangely like his father. We think he’s a young Tony without hesitation – he can just act, he doesn’t need to resort to mimicry. (He’s great here, though the jury is still out on whether he has a future beyond that specific role.)
For fans of the original The Sopranos, there is certainly fun to be had in all of this cosplay. And the movie is filled with Easter eggs, meant to make us laugh with gratitude. “Oh, poop,” Livia tells Tony at one point, and we feel the satisfaction of being in the joke. (The movie doesn’t roll out the show’s famous theme song to the very end, causing another crack of fun.)
Unfortunately, this is not enough to do The Many Saints of Newark a great – if not a good – movie. There are of course new characters, including Alessandro Nivola (solid here, as always) as Dickie Moltisani, the uncle Tony idolizes; Ray Liotta as Dickie’s brash father; Jon Berthnal as Tony’s father, who spends much of the film in prison; and Leslie Odom Jr. as Harold McBrayer, a black gangster who works for Dickie and wants to lead his own team.
The movie is filled with tropes of gangster movies. Dickie has a temper he regrets, which grabs his body like possession, causing it to crack. How many times have we seen this trait? He wants to atone for his sins, coaching a softball team for blind children (“You are a saint,” a mother tells him) and visiting an old Mafia henchman serving a life sentence (I would say more on that but that would ruin one of the movie’s most unexpected twists). Everyone has a goomah, or mistress, as they did on The Sopranos. There are scenes of cooking sausage and eating baked ziti. There are shocking and unexpected crowd shots.
The only variation of the trope is the film’s frank recognition of racism among these assaulted men. They are shameless and blatantly racist, cracking down on black laziness and inability to manage their own money. When Johnny Soprano gets out of prison, he is disgusted – mortified – that a black family has moved into his neighborhood. It’s brave for Chase and co. to recognize this ugly fact – and it makes us all the more root for Harold McBrayer. (This blatant racism is part of what fuels Harold’s desire to get out of Dickie’s thumb and start his own gang.) The first part of the film matches the Newark Race Riots. It serves two purposes: Harold has his high consciousness. And Dickie conveniently uses the confusion of the riots to get rid of a body.
It’s all pretty well done (although the costumes from the late ’60s and early’ 70s look a bit over the top, too on the nose), but it’s certainly not enough to elevate this movie to the level of. The Sopranos. Just out of curiosity, I saw again The Sopranos’ first episode after finishing the movie. It is still a masterpiece. Just this episode had more humor, more nuance, bolder choices, more to say about toxic masculinity, shifting American ideals, and the legacy of bad parenting than The Many Saints of Newark had in all its running time. The missing humor is huge here. The Sopranos was funny and the humor revealed the character. Tony described himself as a “sad clown” and this duality – Tony both ridiculous and tragic – permeated the series. But for the most part The Many Saints of Newark is something serious.
If you’re in the mood for a half-decent mafia movie, I guess you could do worse than The Many Saints of Newark. But i saw The Sopranos. And it’s not The Sopranos.
The Many Saints of Newark now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.