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‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Review: The Best Really Is Over

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Review: The Best Really Is Over
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‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Review: The Best Really Is Over

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Review: The Best Really Is Over

Tony Soprano, the mob boss in “The Sopranos,” was many things: husband, father, animal lover, lady-killer, sociopathic capitalist, pop-culture sensation. Americans like his villains on the softer side, and Tony famously suffered from internal turmoil manifested in panic attacks, leaving him with blood on his hands. A mobster in therapy—with a sexy woman shrinking, no less—generated plenty of narrative tension, as did his overlapping gangs and extended families. All told, Tony was a perfect distillation of two great American passions: self-improvement and getting away from murder.

Produced by David Chase, “The Sopranos” faded to enigmatic black in 2007, although it has been its original home for six seasons, including on HBO. As a rule, we use the present tense when writing about fiction: the characters now exist in the eternal, or that is the idea. But the death of James Gandolfini, who played Tony, made it complicated because he and the show were interchangeable. With his clear, fast-paced expression and a hulking, powerfully menacing physicality, Gandolfini builds on Tony’s inner struggle, filling a potential cartoon with soul and, by extension, giving the show more depth. Because of his absence I think of his signature character in the past.

It’s also one of the reasons why the movie spinoff “The Many Saints of Newark,” a busy, unnerving, frustratingly simple origin story, doesn’t work. The film definitely has pedigree. It was written by Chase with Lawrence Conner, who wrote some episodes of “The Sopranos”, and another directed by series veteran Alan Taylor. Jumping between time periods, it tracks the emotional education (moral and emotional) of young Tony, an 11-year-old peepsick played by William Ludwig in 1967. After much introduction and plot development, the story moves to Tony at age 16, now played by Gandolfini’s son Michael, who is very similar to his father.

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