In the movie prequel to “The Sopranos,” Tony returns as a child who learns to navigate his families on a difficult road to mob power.
Tony Soprano, the mob boss in “The Sopranos,” was many things: husband, father, animal lover, lady-killer, sociopathic capitalist, pop-culture sensation. Americans like their villains on the soft side, and Tony famously suffered from inner turmoil, manifested in panic attacks, to go with the blood on his hands. A mobster in therapy — with a sexy female shrink, no less — generated bountiful narrative tension, as did his overlapping gangland and extended families. All told, Tony was a perfect distillation of two great American passions: self-improvement and getting away with murder.
Created by David Chase, “The Sopranos” faded to enigmatic black in 2007, though it endures, including on HBO, its original home for six seasons. As a rule, we use the present tense when writing about fiction: Characters exist in the eternal now, or that’s the idea. But the death of James Gandolfini, who played Tony, complicates this because he and the show were interchangeable. With his lucid, quicksilver expressivity and a hulking, powerfully threatening physicality, Gandolfini made flesh Tony’s internal struggle, filling a potential cartoon with soul and, by extension, giving greater depth to the show. His absence is why I think of his signature character in the past tense.
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It’s also a reason the movie spinoff “The Many Saints of Newark,” a busy, unnecessary, disappointingly ordinary origin story, doesn’t work. The movie certainly has pedigree. It was written by Chase with Lawrence Konner, who wrote a few episodes of “The Sopranos,” and directed by Alan Taylor, another series veteran. Jumping between time periods, it tracks the sentimental education (moral and emotional) of the young Tony, who in 1967 is an 11-year-old pipsqueak played by William Ludwig. After a lot of introductions and plot developments, the story jumps to Tony at 16, now played by Gandolfini’s son, Michael, who bears a striking resemblance to his father.
The movie means to show how and why the child became the man we never see but who casts a deep shadow. Following along with this evolutionary journey will be easier for those who watched “The Sopranos,” week after week, for 86 episodes of detailed, intimate, explanatory character development. Whatever your familiarity with the series, you may soon find yourself wondering why the filmmakers decided the way to fill in Tony’s past was to delve into his early relationship with a dreary, clichéd surrogate father rather than, say, his monstrous mother, Livia (immortalized in the show by Nancy Marchand and played here by Vera Farmiga with a prodigious prosthetic nose).
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Tony’s symbolic dad in “Saints” is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, who can’t hold the center), a midlevel mob guy and father to the adult Tony’s mentee, Christopher, the drug-addled distant cousin and screw-up played by Michael Imperioli. Dickie never appeared onscreen in “The Sopranos,” but in the movie he takes on crucial twinned roles as Tony’s champion and as a progenitor of the violent, emotionally addled mobster Tony later becomes. It’s never clear why Dickie has a soft spot for the kid, other than it gives Tony a narratively convenient, relatively benign replacement for his more floridly violent, often absent dad. Mostly Dickie is a new toy that the filmmakers can play with.
Too bad he’s right off the shelf. An amalgam of wiseguy clichés wrapped in a period-appropriate package, Dickie enters a crowded field of movie mob guys who are rarely as interesting as their makers believe. He has all the prerequisites, from the slick car to the sleek suits, and comes burdened with the usual work and women problems. Some of these headaches produce tension and promising interest, most notably Dickie’s relationship with a restless Black employee, Harold McBrayer (a nuanced, bristling Leslie Odom Jr.), whose discontent is mirrored, or is meant to be, by unrest that is based on what happened in Newark in 1967 after the arrest of a Black man.
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Both Harold’s prominence and the relatively few racist slurs dropped here are an index of the different cultural climates in which the movie and the show opened. Mobsters are going to mobster (bada-bing), but the language they use and the barbarisms they commit have been attenuated. And while the movie tries to engage race, its efforts are wan, cautious. By contrast, the women remain pretty much the same nagging wives, dutiful daughters and hot girlfriends, a.k.a. goomahs (bada-boom). The most important of these is a beauty, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), who’s brought from Italy by Dickie’s father (Ray Liotta) to be his wife; mostly, she’s around to flash booty and stir up Oedipal trouble.
Movie spinoffs can be tough to pull off. Nothing felt at stake when I watched, oh, the first “Brady Bunch” movie, but its source material wasn’t a critical fetish, something that inspired excited discussions on masculinity, the latest golden age of television and the effect on the industry. “The Sopranos,” though, was too good, too memorable, and its hold on the popular imagination remains unshakable. It still casts a spell, and the movie knows it, which is why it sticks to the tired template of a boy’s own story rather than taking a radical turn, like revisiting Tony’s world from Giuseppina’s or Livia’s or Harold’s points of view. In the end, the best thing about “The Many Saints of Newark” is that it makes you think about “The Sopranos,” but that’s also the worst thing about it.