‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Review: The Prequel to ‘The Sopranos’ Is a Pretty Good Yarn, but It Doesn’t Explain Tony Soprano

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In its heyday, there was an ad campaign for “The Sopranos” that played, in an obvious but irresistible way, off the word “family.” The show was about Tony Soprano and his tempestuous suburban family, and it was also, of course, about that other family: the Mafia. When it comes to television, though, there is always an additional meaning to family. For anyone addicted to a drama or comedy series — it doesn’t matter if it’s about Jersey Mob soldiers, lowly office workers, or astrophysicist geeks — the regulars on the show come to seem like a family, and they become your family.

“The Sopranos,” though it was about the most dangerous family we’d ever seen on television, had that quality. Every Sunday night, we watched an episode worthy of comparison to the Martin Scorsese of “GoodFellas,” but we also got to hang with Tony and his crew: the bad-boy sociopath protégé Christopher, Paulie “Walnuts” with his psycho Yogi Berra one-liners, Syl with his aggro hunchback squint, and the rest. No, these weren’t Teddy bears; on occasion, the prospect loomed that one of them might even get whacked. Yet for all the homicidal temper and tribal backstabbing, there was a ruthlessly funny, jaunty, and entertaining quality to Tony and his motley meathead crew. For six seasons, “The Sopranos” was a masterful Mob psychodrama that was also a hair-trigger underworld Jersey party.

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In “The Many Saints of Newark,” David Chase, the legendary creator and showrunner of “The Sopranos,” presents us with a dramatic feature that strives to be nothing less than the origin story of “The Sopranos.” It’s set in the racially torn Jersey city of Newark in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Tony was just a teenager, and the movie, like the show, presents us with a crew of middle-class hoodlums who occupy the lower rungs of an Italian crime family. The principal character, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), is Christopher’s father and Tony’s “uncle” (though they’re not blood relatives — Dickie is the future Carmela Soprano’s cousin), and he’s the film’s center of gravity: the equivalent to Tony on the series. Nivola makes him a smooth talker, a cards-close-to-the-vest player, and a menschy neighbor with a nice smile, especially when it comes to mentoring Tony — though Dickie also has a spontaneous hothead way of dispatching the people he gets angry at, even when they’re close to him.

Other members of the crew include the redoubtable Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), who even 30 years earlier is an all-too-recognizable version of the same merciless, bald, glowering-through-his-glasses hard-ass (he has a way of signing off conversations with the phrase “Your sister’s c—t!”); Dickie’s imperious, gravel-voiced sadist father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), who has just brought his sexy new Italian bride, Guiseppina (Michela De Rossi), back from the old country; and Tony’s father, “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal), who is such a sniping patriarchal blowhard tyrant that listening to his tantrums, we totally understand how Tony’s mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), could have turned into the vengeful domestic Medusa she became.

If you’re a “Sopranos” fanatic (and who isn’t?), there are a few key things you want from “The Many Saints of Newark,” starting with a movie that’s compulsively authentic and watchable the way that the show was. As co-written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, and directed by the series regular Alan Taylor, “The Many Saints” more or less fills that bill. It’s a sharp, lively, and engrossing movie, one that provides a fascinating running commentary on how the world of “The Sopranos” came into being.

Yet we can’t help but notice the difference in tone. These characters are suitably gripping back-door Mob types who gather in the private rooms of restaurants to chow down on giant chops of seasoned meat, but they’re not fun in the same way. They’re more like a club of rageaholics. (They don’t feel like family. You wouldn’t want to hang out with them for six seasons.) “The Sopranos” was, among other things, a drama of psychotherapy, and in “The Many Saints of Newark” you could say that David Chase puts his entire series on the couch. He wants to show us the dysfunctional dark roots of Tony’s violent behavior, and he does it by scraping away any last hint of glamour. As James Gandolfini played him (with a brilliance worthy of Brando), Tony was a great antihero. We reveled in his fearsome schlub charisma, his morose vulnerability, even his bullying rage, and as dastardly as he could be we rooted for him. “The Many Saints of Newark,” narrated by Christopher Moltisanti from the grave, gazes with a far more cold-eyed objectivity on the world it’s showing us.

That said, what does a “Sopranos” movie look like? Not all that different from the show, which was already like a movie (that’s part of what made it revolutionary). It opens in 1967 during the Summer of Love, which in Newark looks like the summer of hate, bigotry, and burning. The movie’s depiction of the Newark riots attempts to spin that cataclysm into a drama of social empathy, notably when it introduces the character of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious Black criminal who’s tired of doing numbers pick-up for the Italians. He wants to launch his own numbers bank, maybe his own empire; for that he’ll need moxie, a major backer, and a willingness to kill the right people. Odom embodies him with a smooth panache that makes you wish he had more screen time — especially when Harold shows up in bed with a crucial character and we think, “How did that happen?” The riots, for all the big-scale early showiness (“Look, we’re making a movie like ‘Detroit’!”), boil down to a plot device that enables the disposal of a body.

It’s Dickie’s snaky exploits that keep you engaged. When he takes a shine to his father’s new bride, it creates a hidden love triangle that’s resolved in a shocking way. Guiseppina, with her dreams of starting a beauty parlor, becomes Dickie’s goomah, leading to all the compartmentalized erotic romance and bottled-up resentment that tends to engender. Dickie, as solicitous as he can be, has a way of antagonizing the people closest to him, including his fellow crime-crew members. He gets advice from his father’s brother, who’s in prison for committing a hit on a made man ­— and, in a gambit as enjoyable as it is not quite believable, is also played by Liotta, now dispensing the Italian version of Buddhist jazz-nut homilies. This man sees through the insanity of life in the Mafia, but the movie sinks us into the egomaniacal pettiness of it all. There’s some Machiavellian Mob-war stuff in “The Many Saints of Newark,” but the characters are just as likely to get whacked for a trivial perceived insult.

And then, of course, there’s young Tony. He’s played by Michael Gandolfini, the late James’ son, who was 20 when the film was shot and matches up with his actor father in ways that are uncanny and dramatically touching. The front teeth that jut out slightly, creating a subliminal lisp, the look of imploring moon-faced wonder: We look at this long-haired but still wide-eyed kid, who’s like an edgier John Cusack, and he’s just what you might have imagined Tony Soprano would be as a New Jersey delinquent caught between his painfully dysfunctional family and the culture of rock ‘n’ roll freedom. But though Dickie the gangster becomes his second father (a much nicer one than his own), by the time the film reaches the early ’70s (cue the Rolling Stones’ “Sway”), the worst thing that Tony has done is to hijack a Mr. Softee truck. Michael Gandolfini’s performance makes it clear that Tony wants to be good — to go to college, to be a loyal member of the high-school football team (which he is). When Livia, in her already paranoid rage, accuses him of smoking dope, the accusation is all in her head. And when Dickie steals some giant stereo speakers for him, Tony’s ambivalence about taking them speaks louder than the speakers. So does the place those speakers end up.

We want “The Many Saints of Newark” to spin a good yarn, and for the most part it does. But the thing we most want from this movie, which arrives 14 years after “The Sopranos” ended, is a sense of revelation. We want it to show us how Tony Soprano, growing up as a “normal” Italian-American teenager, slipped onto the road that would lead him to become a gangster sociopath. We need to see him take that first step. The movie may have convinced itself that it shows it to you. But sorry, watching “The Many Saints of Newark,” this “Sopranos” fan found Tony’s “evolution” toward the dark side to be even less convincing than Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader at the climax of “Revenge of the Sith.” At the end, I felt like we needed a second prequel, or maybe just that essential TV thing: another episode.

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