“The Many Saints of Newark” review: the best is truly over
Tony Soprano, the mob boss in “The Sopranos,” was a lot of things: husband, father, animal lover, female killer, sociopathic capitalist, pop culture sensation. Americans love their villains on the soft side, and Tony suffered from inner turmoil, manifested in panic attacks, which went with blood on his hands. A gangster in therapy – along with a sexy female shrink, no less – generated abundant narrative tension, as did his gangland and extended overlapping families. All in all, Tony was a perfect concentrate of two great American passions: self-improvement and murder.
Created by David Chase, “The Sopranos” went enigmatic black in 2007, though it endured, including on HBO, his original home for six seasons. Typically, we use the present tense when writing about fiction: the characters exist in the Eternal Now, or that’s the idea. But the death of James Gandolfini, who played Tony, complicates that because he and the series were interchangeable. With his lucid, quicksilver expressiveness and towering, powerfully menacing physicality, Gandolfini gave flesh to Tony’s internal struggle, filling a potential soulful cartoon and, by extension, lending more depth to the show. His absence is the reason why I think of his signature character in the past tense.
This is also a reason why the spin-off film “The Many Saints of Newark”, a loaded, unnecessary and disappointing origin story, doesn’t work. The film certainly has a pedigree. It was written by Chase with Lawrence Konner, who wrote a few episodes of “The Sopranos”, and directed by Alan Taylor, another series veteran. Jumping between eras, it traces the sentimental education (moral and emotional) of young Tony, who in 1967 is an 11-year-old pipsqueak played by William Ludwig. After many introductions and plot developments, the story turns to Tony at age 16, now played by Gandolfini’s son Michael, who bears a striking resemblance to his father.