In our age of prequels and reboots, origin stories have become fashionable. Did you ever wonder how the villain in 101 Dalmatians got that way? Then step right up for Cruella. Wonder how the Joker became the Joker? Hollywood has you covered. And never forget that George Lucas spent three whole movies and a lot of years trying to make us care about Darth Vader before he was Darth Vader.
Now comes The Many Saints of Newark, which ostensibly is meant to give fans of The Sopranos a glimpse into Tony Soprano’s formative years. Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the film, co-written by series creator David Chase, is actually much more complicated and layered than that, though, offering a snapshot of the Sopranos universe during a tumultuous period. In fact, Tony isn’t even the main character — that would be Dickie Moltisanti, the father of Christopher Moltisanti, who was played by Michael Imperioli during the original series. (Imperioli, as Christopher, narrates the movie from the grave.) We heard about the late Dickie a little bit during The Sopranos — specifically, how he was a big influence on Tony — but The Many Saints of Newark takes its time to really explore the character. After all, if he helped shape Tony Soprano — arguably this century’s most beloved fictional figure — he must be a pretty fascinating guy.
What’s intriguing — and, ultimately, a little disappointing — about the film is how Chase and director Alan Taylor (who frequently shot episodes of The Sopranos) subvert those expectations. In real life, mentors are often essential individuals who help push us along the road to becoming the people we were meant to be. There’s something captivating about them, and because they’re older than us, they seem to embody a wisdom we’re too young to possess ourselves. But in The Many Saints of Newark, Dickie Moltisanti isn’t that interesting — intentionally so. The Tony Soprano we saw in The Sopranos was a towering, complicated patriarch. By comparison, Dickie is a small little man — a mobster without distinction. (Even his hair-trigger temper feels de rigueur in that violent world.) As a result, the movie becomes an oddly muted tragedy: This was the guy who made Tony Tony?
Dickie is portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who plays him as a cocky, backslapping regular guy. He runs the numbers racket in the same New Jersey neighborhood we know well from The Sopranos, and some of that show’s supporting players pop up in this — albeit, played by different actors. (John Magaro, for instance, does a very funny impression of Steven Van Zandt’s Silvio.) Dickie’s father Aldo (Ray Liotta) is a bullying blowhard who’s just come back from Italy with a too-young-for-him new wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), who barely speaks English. Dickie isn’t happy that his dad abuses Giuseppina in the same way he used to treat his mom — but his discomfort is only amplified because he’s attracted to Giuseppina, who’s technically his stepmother. Sooner or later, Dickie is going to have to intervene.
Anyone who watched The Sopranos — and if you haven’t, The Many Saints of Newark isn’t where to start your binge — can probably predict what happens next. Chase’s acclaimed show was unapologetic in demonstrating how violence is a way of life in the mob — and also how it’s passed down from generation to generation, usually through the men in those families. One graphic scene later, Dickie has taken care of the problem, and quickly thereafter this married man makes Giuseppina his goomar, hoping that she’ll give him the child his wife never could. Whether it’s the acquiring of a goomar or the business dealings that go on during funerals, there’s a purposeful echoing of Sopranos plot points in The Many Saints of Newark. The things we enjoyed from the show are all here in this origin story — after all, it’s just history repeating itself. Or, more accurately, The Many Saints of Newark illustrates where that behavior originated.
Nivola, a superb character actor who’s done terrific work in everything from Junebug to The Art of Self-Defense, brings a low-key intensity to Dickie, who also has to contend with a rival who used to be an associate: Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), an enforcer radicalized by the 1967 Newark riots into organizing his fellow Black criminals to rise up against Dickie’s racist gangsters. But while Dickie flashes moments of decency, what’s striking is how unremarkable he is. The Sopranos had the ambition and the space to really investigate its characters — not just Tony — so that we understood their different dimensions and contradictions. Running only two hours, The Many Saints of Newark simply doesn’t have enough time, but even so Dickie isn’t depicted as particularly magnetic or tortured. The film seems to be stripping away the supposed glamour from both mobsters and mentors, in the process demystifying the idea that Tony Soprano — or, really, anyone — got the way he did because of one individual.
Dickie’s cruel acts, his thoughtless deeds, his lack of a compelling inner life — there’s a haunting emptiness at the core of the man. Even the film’s treatment of his ratcheted-up conflict with Harold for control of Newark feels strangely impersonal, the urgency sucked out of the shootouts. Dickie doesn’t appear to be driven by anything — not greed or pride or power — and it’s telling that when teenage Tony (played by James Gandolfini’s son Michael) approaches him about getting medication for his depressed mother Livia (Vera Farmiga, brilliantly channeling the late Nancy Marchand’s affectations), Dickie dismisses the idea. Dickie isn’t necessarily an evil monster, but he’s got no soul, and so the idea that anyone could struggle with mental-health issues is utterly foreign to him.
Although The Many Saints of Newark focuses on Dickie, Tony stays on the margins, like an observer curious to take center stage. (In one memorable moment, he watches Dickie and his capos conferring during a funeral and wonders aloud what they’re talking about. Just wait, Tony: In a few decades, you’ll find out.) Michael’s resemblance to his late father brings an inherent poignancy to his every scene in The Many Saints of Newark. We see James Gandolfini’s moody eyes and round face in Michael, a reminder that Michael’s father died too soon. But it’s also moving because of The Sopranos’ much-debated ending: Many took that abrupt final cut to black as an indication that Tony (and presumably his family) were about to be killed, and so Michael’s eerily similar demeanor to that of his dad makes us wonder all over again about Tony’s eventual fate.
The Tony we see in The Many Saints of Newark is a socially awkward troublemaker — he hijacks an ice-cream truck and cheats on tests in school — but he also seems unformed, his destiny not yet written. Where some of the adult actors never get beyond mimicry — Corey Stoll has the right glasses and diction for Junior, but it still feels a bit like a waxworks — Michael Gandolfini effortlessly evokes a teen Tony, that same lovable spirit viewers will remember from The Sopranos without the older man’s maturity and savvy. Diminished by his Uncle Junior, badgered by his mother and distant with his jailbird dad (Jon Bernthal), Tony is someone in need of direction, and practically by default Dickie becomes that father figure for him. Dickie likes the kid, and Tony likes the attention. Tough luck for Tony that this is the family into which he was born.
The film doesn’t have the same rhythms or shooting style as the TV show — and don’t expect to hear “Woke Up This Morning” over the opening credits. The Many Saints of Newark isn’t as funny as The Sopranos, either — there’s a glum sense of finality, as if what we’re witnessing is already set in stone. Maybe that’s why the movie ends up feeling a little anticlimactic: Chase and his cohorts aren’t trying to top The Sopranos as much as they’re trying to fill in some of the blanks.
There’s at least one big reveal that occurs — an audience member in my screening actually gasped when the shockeroo took place — but on the whole, I found myself only moderately engaged by what was happening. It’s daring to spend an entire film showing us an unremarkable mobster who, unwittingly, helps guide Tony Soprano to his inevitable calling. Chase means to underline what a pity it was that Tony went into the family business, dragged down by inertia and a sense of duty rather than following his dreams. But The Many Saints of Newark’s minor-key ironies only take it so far. What made The Sopranos magnificent was that it was about a monster — one you couldn’t stop watching, and sometimes even empathized with, but a monster all the same. The film suggests that Dickie Moltisanti didn’t deserve the honor of being Tony’s mentor. But it misjudges how much time we’d want to spend with such a nobody ourselves.