If you spend ten minutes in social media’s most ironic corridors, you are bound to run into a meme about The Sopranos. No one is exactly sure when, but sometime around the series’ 20th anniversary in 2019, it developed a rabid following among late Millennials and Gen Zers. Not old enough to have been fans of the show when it first aired, this younger audience has found meaning in The Sopranos because they see it as a parable for their times: everything around you is steadily crumbling, and the only recourse at your disposal is to throw on a garish shirt and smoke, drink, and eat fatty foods with whatever friends you have left. ‘Decline’ is a metaphor used frequently to describe the post-2008 era. There has been a decline in our living standards, in social cohesion, in our ability to achieve the extraordinary or affect politics; the environment and our mental health are in freefall. Everyone—right, center, and left—today thinks the world is getting worse, but few figures voiced this in 1999 at the height of Clintonian optimism. Few, except for Sopranos creator David Chase.
Chase recently told Willy Staley of The New York Times Magazine that he didn’t think highly of the supposedly stable 90s. He felt that things were slowly unraveling, that we were “amusing ourselves to death” and unknowingly headed toward a crash. The Sopranos, in essence, is a reflection of his pessimism. Using the Mafia as a metaphor for an old way of doing things, the show captured the anxiety of an age with no grounding. It told the story of a has-been criminal enterprise and how its members dealt with their lives being upended by forces outside their control. Some took the advice of the times and tried to address their issues by looking inward (psychotherapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.), while others, with nothing to lose, retreated into parodies of themselves and became hyperreal Mafiosi. One could say The Sopranos was one long exercise in managing dwindling expectations. Critiquing the world along these lines is now commonplace, but such pessimism in the early 2000s was stunningly prophetic and the secret to the show’s staying power. It marred the slice-of-life adventures of Tony Soprano & Co. with a disquieting hue that made it so you often forgot you were watching a show about the mob; their pitiable mishaps could as easily have happened to you.
How does one follow-up a series that was a sensation during its run and deemed infallible during its social media-era resurrection? How does one write a sequel to a show notorious for its loose ends without feeling like a tailor nobody asked for? How can a feature film capture the spirit of a production whose richness was derived from its giant cast of flamboyant weirdos? With Sopranos’ prequel film The Many Saints of Newark (dir. Alan Taylor), Chase—on co-writing duties with longtime collaborator Lawrence Konner—has decided to follow the DiMeo crime family backwards to North Jersey of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ostensibly, this era was the inverse of that of the television series: the Mafia was in its glory days that later members pined for, but, in contrast with the optimism and anxiety that sedated America at the turn of the millennium, the world of Many Saints seems to be coming apart.
Classics of the Mafia genre like The Godfather and Goodfellas are notorious for glancing over issues of race; Many Saints leaves these realities less obscured. The first part of the film is set explicitly in the midst of the 1967 Newark race riots. In its moments depicting poverty, racism, and segregation in Newark, Many Saints spits at the idea that this era which Tony waxes nostalgically for in The Sopranos was worth anything at all. Italian Amreicans might have lived more comfortably than other marginalized groups, but the advantages they had were the result of an oppressive and unsustainable post-war social structure that, as we see in the film, was crumbling. Even for respected Mafiosi, danger was an inescapable part of life. Made men may have preferred tailored suits to tracksuits during the mob’s golden years, but Many Saints shows that being in Cosa Nostra has never been a civilized affair: the threat of death was omnipresent, you couldn’t trust anyone, and you were earning a living doing the dirtiest work possible. Funeral homes have never not been packed with mourning mobsters.
Many Saints is largely centered around the trials and tribulations of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a rising young hot shot in the DiMeo family. A mentor to a young Tony Soprano (William Ludwig & Michael Gandolfini), the similarities between Dickie and adult Tony are endless. They are both natural leaders and charming womanizers who are smarter than those in their circle. They are aware that what they do is evil; they don’t want to be seen as the bad guy, but they can never bring themselves to live a straight life. Both are prone to violent outbursts and suffer from persecution complexes. The archetype they embody—the lovable crook—is nothing new, but while Tony Soprano was a revelatory update of this age-old mold, Dickie Moltisanti is an alright done-before, a well-dressed, two-dimensional Hollywood gangster whose surface-level conflictions are never really interrogated.
Although banal, Dickie is not entirely a lost cause. Alessandro Nivola delivers in his performance, capturing an immortal tough guy swagger that is an eternal recurrence on the big screen. Balancing a soft-spoken magnetism with bursts of uncontrolled anger, in the right setting, Dickie could lead a solid popcorn flick. The problem with the character in Many Saints is he is thrown into a whirlpool of zigzagging, half-baked plotlines that never wholly pan out. There is the story of Dickie the up-and-coming wiseguy and the story of his Oedipus complex. Then, there is young Tony’s origin tale and the fleshing out of familiar Sopranos faces (Johnny Boy, Junior, etc.). Then, there is a whole separate plot featuring Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a Black associate of Dickie who, inspired by the burgeoning Black Power movement, starts his own competing criminal operation. On top of all that, Many Saints contains a plethora of direct references to the Sopranos TV series to further eat away at fans’ attention. (They range from ‘not so subtle’ to ‘very not so subtle.’)
The result is an uncomfortably fast two hours of scene jumping that never stops to ask, “what are we trying to do here?” Many Saints can’t decide whether it’s supposed to be the story of Dickie, the story of young Tony, or the story of Dickie vs. Harold. While the first two storylines are nothing more than generic gangster tales, the failure to let the third plotline bloom is a missed opportunity. Exploring the tension between a Black urban underclass struggling for recognition and a reactionary strata of newly assimilated white ethnics is a novel path for the Mafia movie. Many Saints’ second half takes place in the wake of post-civil rights movement white flight when Mafia members relocated their families to the suburbs. It’s made obvious why they left Newark proper, but there is a leap in the account of how they got there that is ripe for exposition. Leslie Odom Jr.'s Harold is sharp and collected. Unafraid of the wrath of his former friend and employer, the chemistry between Harold and Dickie feels more natural than any relationship Dickie has with his family or mob associates. Neither character is a paragon of originality, but together they bring out the most interesting sides of one another.
The tragedy of Many Saints’ desire to be everywhere at once is that there ends up not being enough time to develop any one of its parts. It is an indecisive collection of cookie-cutter mob fables. Tired plotlines are built up to be interrupted by other tired plotlines, or even worse, by one of the infinite number of poorly executed Sopranos references. When you are the prequel to a show notorious for its one-liners, a few inserts from the source-material is to be expected. (I myself was waiting to hear Junior tell Tony’s girl cousins that he “doesn’t have the makings of a varsity athlete.”) But Many Saints is littered with so many of them that watching it feels like navigating an obstacle course. Most lines are so poorly executed (did Junior really need to blurt out “sister’s cunt!” twice?) that they end up turning the movie into a game of Sopranos bingo you desperately want to lose. The neverending stream of information dumped on the audience prevents Many Saints from developing a cogent universe. Viewers get no true feel for the Newark of fifty years ago, just assorted stock images of riots and flashy suits and cars. Even the DiMeo crew hanging out in the backroom of Satriale’s Pork Store—a source of the TV show’s most intimate scenes—feels like forced downtime rather than a chance to get to know the mobsters.
The film’s misuse of Sopranos references is a microcosm of its general defect: everything about The Many Saints of Newark is a pale imitation of the show that birthed it. The script is heavy-handed, the plot is wide-ranging yet shallow, and the characters—especially the painfully overacted Paulie and Silvio—are crude interpretations of their Sopranos parallels. Seventy-eight hours of television got us closely acquainted with the tics and traits of North Jersey’s finest. Even the simpletons of the bunch contained multitudes. Many Saints takes the most generalized description of each character and makes it their entire persona, reducing the ensemble one-by-one to cartoonish parodies. Female characters, in particular, suffer greatly from this lack of dimensionality. In The Sopranos, Tony’s mother Livia had a genuinely frightening demeanor. She was a commanding personality; rooms went quiet when she entered and her treachery consumed Tony long after she died. Comparatively, the Livia of Many Saints (Vera Farmiga) is little more than a spastic pest. She may nag her son and get on his nerves, but her presence is not strong enough to believe she inflicted everlasting trauma onto him. New faces fare even worse. Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), the young Italian beauty who comes over from the old country to wed Dickie’s father (Ray Liota) before becoming Dickie’s goomah, is mainly an object of male possession. Her attempts to assert herself are meager. Tony’s childlike Russian girlfriend Irina was more tenacious than her, let alone Carmela, Gloria, or Janice.
Escaping the shadow of The Sopranos is no easy task. The series has been cemented as the fable of our age, a sybaline maze of comedy and obscenity that makes more sense with each passing year. Unfortunately, The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t even try to define itself as a separate entity. Everything about it—the narrative, the characters, the dialogue, the setting—is an inferior version of its predecessor. It is sentimental about itself and speaks to no historical moment. Ironically, Many Saints would have worked better as a television show; the format could have lent enough time and space to allow the film’s many parts to establish themselves. This wouldn’t have been groundbreaking, but it could have been more enjoyable. Like how Many Saints can’t decide whose story it’s supposed to tell, it also can’t decide if it wants to be a feature film or a season of TV. Crammed into two hours is a mini-series worth of material without the benefits of the elongated medium. Fans will be disappointed and newcomers will feel like there’s an inside joke they’re missing out on. A fundamental paradox drives the relationship between The Sopranos and Many Saints: the former made a point of never giving the audience what it wants, and through that managed to capture the spirit of an age, while the latter’s only concern is catering to the most braindead desires of series superfans.