The gold standard of filmdom that serves as prequels for the Box series is David Lynch’s “ Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me. ” In that diagnostic, from 1992, Lynch righted the wrongs of his two-season series — namely, that he’d directed only six of the thirty events. He directed “ Fire Walk with Me, ” and it got universally and inaccurately condemned at the time of its release precisely because Lynch treated with radical subjectivity the same material that had been handled more conventionally in the Box series. He did another than expand its story; he expanded its imaginative gamut.
In “ The Multifold Saints of Newark, ” the prequel film to “ The Sopranos, ” the series ’ creator, David Chase, takes the contrary approach to tell the coming-of-age story of youngish Tony Soprano. Chase wrote the film’s script with Lawrence Konner and delegated the direction to Alan Taylor, a Television stager who’d worked on “ The Sopranos, ” and it shows far from chancing a new way to approach a familiar story, “ The Multiplex Saints of Newark ” (which opens Friday in theatres and on HBO Max) is fresh of the series ’ same jigsaw- puzzlement dramatics, with scenes that do little but drop-in information trimmed to fit. But over six seasons “ The Sopranos ” at least compensated for its reductive aesthetic with complex patterns of narrative information. “ The Multiplex Saints of Newark, ” by distinctiveness, reduces characters of potentially fabulous power to a smattering of defining traits and legs them to a diorama- parallel-ground of nonfictional readymades.
The story is set in two time days — 1967, when immature Tony is about eleven ( played by William Ludwig), and 1971-72, when he’s a teenager ( played by Michael Gandolfini, the real-life son of James Gandolfini, who, of course, played Tony in the Box series). As the title hints, the story is anchored in the future antihero’s relations with the Moltisanti family (the name means “ multifold saints ”) and, in particular, with Tony’s Uncle Dickie (Alessandro Alessandro Nivola), who’s actually the movie’s exponent. Dickie is immature and elegant, at least by the bumptious morality of Newark hoodlums, and when the story begins he’s dealing with two separate problems. First, his widowed father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Ray Liotta), has mated a historic immature woman from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela Michela De Rossi) — and an instant sexual spark connects her and Dickie.
Second, Dickie runs the Newark ciphering bruit, including in generally Black neighborhoods, where indigenous gangs are cutting into the business — and the fact that Dickie goes way back, to the high academy, with his Black junior in the Mob, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Leslie Odom, Jr.), doesn’t obviate him from acting on his unquestioned racism. The movie uses, as a pivotal plot point, the Newark laughs of 1967, which in real life were sparked by an incident of police brutality against a Black cab driver named John Smith (whom the movie name- checks). Perversely, “ The Multiplex Saints of Newark ” makes Dickie himself the proximate cause of that revolt, a kind of wise-joker “ Forrest Gump ” who bends the inflection of history while riding a taxicab across the metropolis on Mob business. Immature Tony, meanwhile, is unmoored. His father, Johnny (Jon Jon Bernthal), gets arrested and either goes to jail.
His mama, Livia (Vera Vera Farmiga), is bitter, ruthless, and depressed. Tony aspires to get a pro football player, but he has been preparing, unwittingly, for the family business, running a gambling ring in his Lilliputian academe among other violent debts. Dickie takes it upon himself to look out for the boy — all the more so since Dickie, having newly committed a murder, seems seized with guilt and hopes for expiation through the good mill. Dickie also seeks spiritual guidance in immurement visits to his Uncle Sally ( also played by Liotta), a killer who has initiated a mind, and whose advice he craves in his attempts to do good. Yet Dickie keeps on killing, and his labors to keep Tony honest prove obliviously clumsy and ineffective.
Tony continues to get into trouble, and his guidance counselor (Talia Talia Balsam) calls Livia in for a meeting. It’s representative of the movie’s gap that, when the counselor harangues of Tony’s highI.Q. and leadership classes, they come as news to the observer — not because Tony isn’t smart or charming but because his multiple scenes are dramatized simplistically, anecdotally, without enough dramatic freedom or give-and-take between characters to suggest any separate substance at all. The movie’s severity likewise diminishes its entire cast of characters, rendering the performances of its multitudinous noteworthy actors mechanical and depriving them of any sense of presence.
The movie’s incidents don’t breathe the air of any world. They’re prayed out of narrow allusions to broad hard data and a soundtrack filled with representational pop music and nostalgia-boosting commercials. As for the pressures and asperities of Mob life, they go peculiarly unexplored as well. In Martin Scorsese’s “ The Irishman, ” the need to dispose of blood-stained raiment, after a contract profit, becomes key practicality, and also a feebly howling chasm of horror, whereas presently the physical and emotional impacts of bloody murder are nowhere suggested. Hoisting and dragging a massive carcass alone? No problem. Are teenagers disposing of a commandeered truck? Fluent and unquestioned. Dumdums among family members? No consequences. There’s one clever plot twist, arising from a RubeGoldberg-esque chain of events, which proves to play a major function in Tony’s illegal doom, but it’s undermined by gravity, a lack of humor, a sense of hard-nosed naturalism that transforms the entire movie into a genre of just-so story. Rather than intentionally deflating its own fantastic elaboration with a wink, “ The Legion Saints of Newark ” pompously sells itself as a serious vision of history and psychology. The joke is on us.