Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for “The Many Saints of Newark” and “The Sopranos.”
“The Sopranos” (1999–2007) writer David Chase had no obligation to keep “Sopranos” spoilers out of his new film, “The Many Saints of Newark” (2021). (It’s been 14 years, marone!) But putting a top-three biggest spoiler in the first twenty seconds of the film, and to have that spoiler serve absolutely no purpose to the plot, was rather offensive. Its only real function, then, is to serve as a microcosm for this unnecessary prequel’s failings.
“Many Saints” falls short of its show predecessor in just about every way. That probably could have been predicted, seeing as “The Sopranos” is undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all time. So maybe comparing the movie to the show is a waste of time — after all, film and television are entirely different media. On the other hand, this is the same universe, and there’s lots of character overlap, not to mention creator overlap. Regardless, “Many Saints” is bad.
Let’s look at the big picture. The storylines were not interesting.
There were three main ones: the happenings of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the plans of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the origins of Tony Soprano (played by the late James Gandolfini’s real-life son, Michael Gandolfini).
Dickie Moltisanti, father to Christopher Moltisanti of “The Sopranos,” is a soldier, a made man in the fictional DiMeo crime family. Dickie’s story in “Many Saints” hits all the major milestones you could predict for a made man from having watched the show — having a comare (pronounced “goomar” and meaning mistress), having constant agita (anxiety) and having a young, impressionable male (Tony, whose father is also a DiMeo family soldier) hang on his every word.
The only unique aspect to Dickie’s life that is presented to us is his relationship to his father, Hollywood Dick Moltisanti, played by the wonderful Ray Liotta of “Goodfellas” (1990) and “The Bee Movie” (2007) fame. The unique part is the moment when Dickie brutally murders Hollywood Dick by vigorously smashing his head against a steering wheel. In a culture that heavily emphasizes respect for one’s parents, this could be pretty easily classified as a no-no.
This murder weighs on Dickie’s conscience, enough so that he visits his deceased father’s estranged and imprisoned twin brother, Sally (understandably also played by Ray Liotta). Sally, having undergone a radical personality transformation from his time as a mafioso, serves as a critical, questioning, advice-giving, “neutral” voice of reason for the post-murder antsy Dickie.
These visit scenes showcase a recurring problem with the film. David Chase mastered symbolism in “The Sopranos,” having six whole seasons to intersperse a variety of plot devices to great effect. With only two hours in “Many Saints,” Chase has to resort to beating us over the head with symbolism and characters who merely serve as plot devices.
A scene where we see young Tony Soprano interacting with a baby Christopher Moltisanti is particularly egregious. As fans of the show or people who saw the first twenty seconds of “Many Saints” know, the former kills the latter many years later in “The Sopranos”. In their first-ever interaction, portrayed in “Many Saints,” there are multiple, consecutive quips from various witnessing characters that drill into us the fact that Tony will eventually end up killing Christopher. His role model’s only son!
This on-the-nose storytelling is not the Chase writing we fell in love with. That being said, Chase was not the sole author of the film’s script so not every plot shortcoming can be fully blamed on him.
But to add insult to injury, the story of Harold McBrayer — an African American associate of Dickie’s — is clumsily thrown into the film. McBrayer’s inclusion brings in an interracial dynamic to the movie that did not feature in the show, and which, along with the 1967 Newark riots, establish the film’s temporal setting.
Unfortunately, nothing much comes of these additions, having little impact on “Many Saints” and even less to the overall “Sopranos” universe. What could have been a bold, new direction seems almost tokenized.
The last major storyline is likely what most fans were excited for: seeing the show’s iconic protagonist in his early years.
Tony is portrayed mostly alongside the influential adults in his life. Dickie and Livia are the two big adult presences for Tony, as we knew even from the show. While Livia’s relationship with Tony is enhanced in “Many Saints,” the Dickie-Tony relationship falls flat.
This, again, might be because Dickie feels derivative as a character. Nivola puts in a fine performance but he doesn’t have much to work with. There is very little emotional impact felt by the audience when the big twist (which is extremely predictable) rips Dickie from Tony. Though it might tie up one loose end from the show, it doesn’t do much for those hoping the movie would end with significance. The last scenes, where we see the supposed moments in which Tony Soprano “becomes” Tony Soprano, feel hollow and unworthy.
Plotlines aside, the young versions of Silvio Dante (John Magaro) and Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) — two fan-favorites from the show — were bad. The former was on-the-verge of offensive, and the latter was not that much better.
Now that the major negatives are laid out, it is worth mentioning the positives that keep this movie from zero stars — most of which revolve around the nostalgia for the show.
The sets and props capturing the ‘60s and ‘70s are sprawling and reminiscent of the underrated jewel of “The Sopranos” — “Down Neck,” the only episode in the series whose whole runtime is devoted to Tony Soprano’s youth.
Corey Stoll and Vera Farmiga’s respective turns as Corrado “Junior” Soprano and Livia Soprano are the best performances of the film, though mostly for the mannerism mimicries of their elderly versions in “The Sopranos.”
And finally, though his performance was simply good enough, seeing Michael Gandolfini portray the character that his father immortalized hit just the right notes of sentimentality.
These positives, however, do little to make up for the many failings of “The Many Saints of Newark.”