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Stop Picking on ‘The Irishman’

A recent ‘Hollywood Reporter’ piece about Netflix’s troubles singled out Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster saga as a ‘vanity project’ that represented what’s wrong with the streamer. Why have people had it out for this movie since before it was even released?

When Netflix announced in April that it had lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of this year — and were going to lose around two million more this quarter — it inspired a lot of schadenfreude among its competitors, who were tired of the seemingly unstoppable company’s arrogance and endless spending. Obviously, changes at the streamer were in store. In the aftermath, employees were sacked, and on Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter had a lengthy piece detailing what the studio’s future might be. The gist was that Netflix is going to stop throwing money at every big star in the hopes of creating a monopoly of popular movies and TV shows. But reporter Borys Kit punctuated that point by closing his article with this comment:

“One thing many agree on is that the era of expensive vanity projects at Netflix, whether animation or live action (like Martin Scorsese’s $175 million ‘The Irishman’), is likely over. ‘This tendency to do anything to attract talent and giving them carte blanche is going away,’ says one person. As always, there will be exceptions — this is Hollywood, after all — but in essence, this new era seems to be marked by one idea: discipline.”

Probably not surprisingly, Film Twitter quickly jumped to the defense of Scorsese’s multiple-Oscar-nominated movie, one of the best films of 2019. The sticking point was Kit’s use of “vanity project” to describe a dark, despairing drama about a two-bit, morally suspect hitman (Robert De Niro) who insinuates himself into the world of power players like Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). That hardly sounds like a self-aggrandizing ego trip — rather, it’s a continuation (maybe even a summation) of everything Scorsese has explored in his movies, including masculinity, the mob and the futility of violence.  

But that The Hollywood Reporter used The Irishman as its example of Netflix’s profligate spending wasn’t surprising. Since before its release, Scorsese’s film has had a bull’s-eye on its chest, becoming a symbol for auteurial overreach and bloated self-importance. That such a reputation is undeserved is as true in 2019 as it is now. Nonetheless, The Irishman has long been a convenient punching bag, an easy scapegoat for the perils of letting those pesky artists make their high-priced, pretentious magnum opuses. No matter how you slice it, it’s an obnoxious attitude.

Let’s put aside questions of quality for a second. I think The Irishman is great, maybe you don’t, but who cares? Really, that’s not what we’re talking about. Instead, it’s a question of perception. The Hollywood Reporter’s piece, which includes interviews with “multiple sources, ranging from executives to producers to agents with ties to the company, to paint a picture of a streaming giant that is trying to get its mojo back,” involves a high level of speculation, with everyone Kit contacted making their best guess about Netflix’s future. And amidst all those hunches about how Netflix will evolve, it’s telling that the article ends with the diss on The Irishman, which puts it in a proud Hollywood tradition of expensive movies that are popularly viewed as not having lived up to their hype — the pricey failures nobody wants to be associated with. 

Whether it’s Cleopatra or Heaven’s Gate or The Postman, the industry loves watching big names fall flat on their face, savoring the magnitude of their epic duds. (Everyone assumed Titanic would be similarly catastrophic, but James Cameron proved them wrong.) With The Irishman, it’s harder to gauge its commercial reception because, as a Netflix movie, box office isn’t much of an indicator. Still, that didn’t keep reporters from labeling its big-screen run as disappointing, with naysayers wondering why the movie cost so damn much, singling out its de-aging effects as being substandard

Other auteurs before and after Scorsese have worked with Netflix — everyone from Alfonso Cuarón to Noah Baumbach to David Fincher to Rian Johnson — but because of Scorsese’s stature in the industry, his teaming-up with the streamer felt like a watershed moment. Here was a guy who rhapsodized about the glory of seeing movies in the theater working with a company that wanted you to check out their flicks at home. Agreeing to make The Irishman with Netflix after Paramount decided the budget was too high, Scorsese told The New York Times that the company was “actually making our movies, from a place of respect and love for cinema.” But that didn’t swat away a perception among some that The Irishman was a pricey boondoggle. Seriously, $175 million for a gangster picture? That’s how much you’d spend on a Marvel movie.

No amount of good reviews and appearances on Top 10 lists could change that negative impression, leaving the film open to ceaseless nitpicking and mocking. People debated whether “young” De Niro looked weird, while others groused about the 209-minute runtime. (At that year’s Oscars, Chris Rock quipped, “Marty, I’ve got to tell you, I love the first season of The Irishman.”) The phenomenon of dudes watching the film on their phone became a whole thing, so much so that Scorsese made a plea for viewers not to do that. And on top of all that, of course, was his measured, completely reasonable op-ed in the Times where he took issue with Marvel’s dominance of the multiplex, which was so smart that it made lots of dumb people mad, opening him up to some of the most idiotic criticism of his movies, such as that they’re always about men and always set in the world of the mob. (No and no.) In our insecure, “let people enjoy things” culture, the very idea that a distinctive director would continue to make personal films that weren’t necessarily geared to the biggest audience possible was considered anathema. Who the hell did this guy think he was?

To be sure, The Irishman’s very existence is due to a unique moment in cinematic history in which Netflix was willing to let world-class filmmakers have as much money as they wanted in order to bring their dream projects to fruition. Few of those movies cost as much as The Irishman, but when you consider that the wretched Red Notice supposedly cost $200 million — and that the equally terrible The Adam Project had a budget north of $100 million — it’s not like Scorsese was the only director or star getting Brink’s-truck money. 

But then again, those other films were big action movies, the assumption being that some arthouse thing like The Irishman shouldn’t be that expensive. On the one hand, that’s probably true, but on the other, if that’s how much Scorsese thought he needed for his film — and Netflix was willing to give it to him — what’s the problem? Complaining about The Irishman’s price tag is similar to moaning about the amount of money professional athletes make: If someone thinks they’re worth that much, then that’s how much they’re worth. (Also, it’s not your money, so why do you care?) 

But for me, the annoyance goes deeper than that. The continued picking on The Irishman strikes me as a general aversion to risk-taking, challenging movies — a resistance to films that don’t fit into comfy little commercial categories. Netflix has myriad problems — for one thing, a lot of their auteur-driven movies have been those auteurs’ weakest films (look no further than Judd Apatow’s atrocious The Bubble) — but allowing Scorsese to take a big swing on The Irishman isn’t one of them. Alongside Roma and The Power of the Dog, The Irishman was a legitimately great movie that might never have been made otherwise. None of them were “vanity projects” — they were serious works from major directors that couldn’t find a home anywhere else. At a time when traditional studios are shying away from such projects, Netflix at least gave them a chance. 

Not that I want to give Netflix too much credit. The company has bankrolled so many wretched films, television shows and docuseries, all in the name of shoving endless content down our gullets. Quantity has outpaced quality over there for a long time. And it’s not like The Irishman doesn’t have its flaws. But The Hollywood Reporter’s lazy scapegoating of the film speaks to a rampant aversion to anything that’s not mainstream — it’s a “vanity project” because it dares to color outside the lines. Why be scornful about that when we should be championing it?

There’s no question Netflix will have to do some serious soul-searching about the creative direction it wants to take going forward. Their refusal to apply any sort of thoughtful oversight to the projects they chose has resulted in a lot of garbage that has severely diminished their brand. As a result, they’ve lost a bunch of subscribers and will lose a bunch more. Those are huge problems, but it’s hard to see how any of that is The Irishman’s fault. Netflix’s era of foolish spending is probably over — thank god Martin Scorsese was able to make his movie before that spigot was turned off.