‘Many Saints of Newark’ prequel mixes familiar Sopranos characters with some compelling new ones

many saints of newark review

BARRY WETCHER/WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT

A scene around the dinner table in “The Many Saints of Newark.”

“The Many Saints of Newark”
Directed by Alan Taylor. With Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll, Alessandro Nivola.
The film will be shown in theaters and on HBO Max, starting Oct. 1.
*** (out of four)

Tony Soprano did not live to a ripe old age. (Or maybe he did. We can argue about that final cut-to-black another time.)

But one thing he never gave into was middle-aged nostalgia. Mooning over long-gone glory days? Fuhgeddaboudit. ” ‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation,” he growled once, when Paulie Walnuts dared start reminiscing.

But while “The Many Saints of Newark” is a big “remember when,” to its credit, it also evokes things we outsiders were never privy to.

Remember when Christopher Moltisanti’s grandfather brought back that hot new wife from Italy? That time T stole the Mister Softee truck? Hey, that guy who got popped outside of that club in Newark that night — what was his name?

Watching the movie is a little like peering over an acquaintance’s shoulder as they go through family photo albums. You may recognize some of the faces — younger, sweeter — but you don’t know any of the stories. You don’t know the inside jokes, the endless feuds.

Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in “The Many Saints of Newark.”

“The Many Saints of Newark” tries to fill us in.

No one would ever accuse the prickly, independent David Chase of indulging in “fan service” — the sort of shameless pandering that superhero films engage in, shoehorning in favorite characters and quotes to get cheers from the audience. Chase tells the stories he wants to tell, and they may not be the ones you want.

But “The Many Saints of Newark,” although only two hours long, is nearly as overstuffed with fan faves as an Avengers film. There are almost too many characters to keep track of, and a long list of mysteries, big and small — who killed Christopher’s father? When did Silvio start wearing that terrible wig? — that finally get resolved.

People who haven’t seen every “Sopranos” episode may feel a little lost. People who have committed every one to memory will be delighted.

The film is divided into two parts, and two periods. The first, set in 1967 Newark, shows us Tony as a little boy and ends with his father going to prison. The second, beginning in the 1971 suburbs, shows us Tony as a teenager and begins with his father coming home.

What’s happened in between, though, is that Christopher’s future dad, Dickie Moltisanti, has taken a larger role in the family business, and in Tony’s life. And that’s not good for anyone, least of all Dickie Moltisanti.

The movie starts, in a sideways nod to the first draft of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” with a scene in a graveyard where the dear departed tell us how they got there. It’s a cacophony of voices until one takes over — Christopher’s. And he’s going to tell us some family history, starting with his father.

Or is he? All Christopher ever knew of his late father was what other relatives told him (one of the reasons he clung so tightly to the Sopranos). And as this new saga unfolds — and it is a saga — it’s overripe with melodrama, with more dead relatives left onstage than the last act of a Greek play.

Ray Liotta in “The Many Saints of Newark.”

Just about everyone is here, of course, except Dr. Melfi. (You’ll have to look faster than I did to really catch Jackie Aprile and Artie Bucco, but they pass through, too.) And even though these people are decades younger, we can already see what they’re going to become.

Livia Soprano — marvelously re-imagined by Vera Farmiga — is softer, but still increasingly joyless and incessantly critical. Not yet a bitter old man, Uncle Junior — deftly sketched by Corey Stoll — is already a bitter middle-aged one. Tony is alternately shy and scared or bold and violent.

Interestingly, though, it’s the characters we never really met before who command the screen. Not so much the loutish “Johnny Boy” Soprano, Tony’s father — as played by Jon Bernthal, he’s a crude, Garden-State-variety thug. But Alessandro Nivola is terrific as the far more complicated Dickie, who swerves between brutalizing women and protecting them, between trying to steer Tony away from the mob life and showing off the things it can get you. He’s clever and charming but also, typically, impulsive and full of rage (the show was always a warning about rampaging testosterone).

Even better is Ray Liotta as Dickie’s father, the patriarch “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti, a big, beefy guy who walks around with his hands in fists and an argument for everything. He leaves the film early, sadly. But then, in a wild touch, he reappears as his twin brother, a mobster serving a life sentence for murder, whom Dickie seeks out for counsel.

Or does he? Dickie’s incarcerated uncle turns out to be a quiet philosopher, a bookworm who adores jazz and dispenses Buddhist wisdom. Is he for real? No, literally, is he? Or is he just a figment of Dickie’s imagination? Because “The Sopranos” was also about fathers — and not always having the one you needed, and having to make do. And sticking an imaginary character in the middle of a movie is not a mind game David Chase would shrink from.

Leslie Odom in “The Many Saints of Newark.”

Not everything here works as well. The impulse to bring back almost everyone — even Big Pussy — doesn’t leave much space for fleshing out the new characters. (“Johnny Boy” Soprano in particular is a missed opportunity. If he provided more of a contrast with Dickie Moltisanti there would be more conflict in Tony, and in the film.)

History gets short shrift, too. Nothing was more transformative in Newark — arguably, in modern New Jersey — than the ’67 riots, but here they’re just a backdrop, and not a very well-staged one. Chase has said they were one of the story’s inspirations, but they feel like an afterthought, low-budget and even a little callous. A burning city should be more than just scene-setting.

Similarly, what should be a major subplot — the coming conflict between Black gangsters and the Italian mob — doesn’t add much except some fine “Superfly” fashions and radical rhetoric. It’s good to see Leslie Odom Jr. on-screen, but it would be great if he had more to do, and we got a better sense of his drive.

Also not getting too much to do is Michael Gandolfini — the late James Gandolfini’s son, playing his father’s signature character as a young man. Despite the advertising, however, he’s not the film’s star — although keeping him in the background, while giving the juiciest scenes to the movie’s veterans, seems like a kind and careful choice.

Of course, casting the young Gandolfini was a publicist’s dream. Although it could have been seen as nakedly exploitative, too, the young actor defused that early by saying it was a way for him to reconnect with his departed dad. (Absent fathers — there’s that theme again.) His participation was a definite hook and potentially a huge break.

Michael Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in “The Many Saints of Newark.”

But Michael Gandolfini is not an accomplished actor — not yet, anyway. So director Alan Taylor and co-writers Lawrence Konner and Chase protect him as much as they can. He doesn’t get many big scenes or long stretches of dialogue. In fact, we only really know what he’s like because someone else tells us — a school guidance counselor, or a reflective Silvio. He’s explained, not revealed.

But the family resemblance is there — something that’s sure to bring twinges of bittersweet memories to audiences — just like shots of landmarks like Hobby’s, or the old Adams Theatre, or Holsten’s. Just as it’s a treat to hear Livia sourly announcing “Poor you!” again or Christopher, dead but still desperately trying to sound smart, mangling history and confusing Neil Armstrong with Neil Young.

The film even ends with a reprise of the TV series’ theme song. For fans who still can’t quite believe “The Sopranos” is gone, those first few chords bring it back. But all that is really just another version of “Remember when.” And at its best, “The Many Saints of Newark” has more on its mind.

For more on the film, visit themanysaintsofnewarkmovie.com. Here is its trailer:

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2 thoughts on “‘Many Saints of Newark’ prequel mixes familiar Sopranos characters with some compelling new ones

  1. I thought the teenage girl with Tony at the phone booth was young Carmella???🤔
    At least that’s the name I heard him refer to her as.

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