The Many Saints of Newark

Spoiler alert. Do not read if you hope to watch this movie without knowing prior information on what happens.

I am in rest and recovery mode from my illness so I watched The Many Saints of Newark this afternoon, the prequel to The Sopranos. Being someone who came very late to The Sopranos party – Ray and I watched the whole series only about four years back – I was eager to see the prequel. I have all the characters clearly in my head from the series and was excited to see where they fit into the early years of creating the main character, Tony Soprano. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

What was the problem? The plot was convoluted, the focus more historical than personally related to Tony’s youth, and the main character was not Tony, but rather his Uncle Dickie. Though it was clear that Uncle Dickie was a key role model for Tony, there was just too much left unsaid at the end to give a clear picture of how Uncle Dickie’s murder would have affected Tony. The prequel did, however, provide some context for Tony’s deep allegiance to Christopher, Uncle Dickie’s son, during the series, and shows Uncle Junior as clearly someone who is motivated by pettiness (he had Dickie secretly killed because he laughed when Junior slipped and hurt his back). That pettiness is something we witness on multiple occasions during the course of the series.

I read after seeing the movie that this “prequel” actually sets up a sequel that will focus more on what Tony does as a young man to avenge Dickie’s murder. That felt like a bit of a cheat since I expected to come out of this movie with a much clearer understanding of who and what made Tony Soprano the complicated, multi-layered character that help catapult The Sopranos to its top ranking as one of the best television series ever made. So far, I learned more about Tony’s youth in the actual series than I did in the prequel.

I will admit there was some sweetness watching James Gandolfini’s son portray the young Tony. He came across as an awkward youth who was too smart for his own good given his circumstances. Tony’s mother, when told by the guidance counselor that he was exceptionally bright, responded with a response consistent with her role in the series. “There is,” she says, “a big difference between being smart and being a smart aleck.” The writers also planted the seeds for Tony’s future depression by exposing his mother’s current one and the recommendation from her doctor that she take an antidepressant. Her response to this was also true to her series’ character. “The doctor wants to turn me into a drug addict.”

The primary reason to watch the prequel is the performance by Alessandro Nivola, who plays Uncle Dickie. He does a masterful job of navigating between extreme sensitivity and murderous rage and does it all while somehow making the audience care about him. Ray Liotta does his usual good job in two roles, Uncle Dickie’s father and his twin brother. As the twin, there were a few light moments when we learn that this convicted murderer is a jazz lover, a reader, and a Buddhist, who sees straight through every lie that Dickie tells.

Yea or nay? Up to you. As a diehard Sopranos fan, I felt compelled to see it and will probably see the sequel. But just know, it ain’t the real The Sopranos.

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