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The Irishman: De-aging De Niro was a waste of money

Commentary: Martin Scorsese spent millions of Netflix's money on digital de-aging effects, and I don't buy it.

The Irishman is out now on Netflix.

Netflix

The first time Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci's characters meet in The Irishman, Pesci calls De Niro "kid." They're both 76. Who are they kidding?

Martin Scorsese's new gangster epic, streaming on Netflix now, reportedly cost around $159 million. A large part of that went to extensive digital effects applied to the actor's faces to make them appear decades younger.

And it doesn't really work.

I've seen The Irishman twice now, and I loved it. I'm fully on board with the groundswell of critical adoration. Legendary director Scorsese has crafted a delicious final chapter to his canon of crime movies, a swan song for a generation of actors and an elegy for the 20th century. It's a layered exploration of the passage of time and the roles small men play in the big moments of history, with the unexpected bonus of a devastating final act.

But the digital de-aging thing ... I dunno guys.

I don't want to denigrate the skill or hard work of Industrial Light and Magic's legion of technicians. It takes a huge amount of craft and artistry to digitally create or alter human faces, because viewers are so attuned to the tiniest nuances of the face. We don't even have to spot something wrong, because we just instinctively recognize when there's something off -- a phenomenon known as the "uncanny valley." Creating facial expressions takes more than just erasing wrinkles and redrawing shadows on the surface of the skin. Visual effects artists are experts in all manner of arcane anatomical phenomena. For instance, do you know what subsurface scattering is? Visual effects artists know it's the way light penetrates skin and changes color.

These cutting-edge effects are everywhere at the moment, making two Will Smiths in Gemini Man or de-aging Marvel characters left and right. In The Irishman, they're used to turn De Niro into Frank Sheeran, a real-life WWII veteran, union official and mob hitman who begins the movie somewhere around his 30s. But even with those fancy effects I just saw the Robert De Niro of today. Plus or minus a few digital wrinkles, his gait is slow, his jawline soft, his shoulders hunched and tight. Even with the millions of dollars of effects, he isn't the stalking physical presence of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or Heat.

Less godfather, more dirty grandpa.

Pacino and De Niro act their age.

Netflix

The same is true of De Niro's co-star, 79-year-old Al Pacino. His performance as fatally self-important teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa is more lively than De Niro's understated turn, but Pacino is still hunched and stiff.

That's the problem throughout the film. Whether changing a tire or giving a grocer a going-over, any time Sheeran does anything more physical than raising his eyebrows, De Niro looks slow and awkward, even ungainly. There's a moment when he steps across wet rocks to toss a gun in a river and I physically reached out to the screen to steady him.

In fact, possibly the most uncanny thing is how much he looks like my dad, who's a year older than De Niro. And if my dad went that close to wet rocks I would yell at him.

Perhaps surprisingly, it took years to raise the money for The Irishman, even with the prospect of Scorsese uniting one of the most incredible casts ever assembled. That's largely because the de-aging technology was so expensive. Ironically, if they'd made it sooner they might not have needed the effects. In The Irishman's action scenes, I couldn't help feeling it's been 15 or 20 years since De Niro could pull off that kind of physicality.

This isn't a criticism of De Niro or Pacino's acting. They make a hugely watchable pair, two giants of the big screen, as magnetic as ever. Take, for example, the scene where De Niro tries to convince Pacino he's on his last warning with the mob, and Pacino burns with righteous indignation. Or the tiny moment when Sheeran realizes he has to talk to a woman he's just widowed. The look that passes over De Niro's face is devastating.

Does it matter he isn't particularly convincing as a young man, then? For many viewers, clearly not. But I found it distracting.

gettyimages-853845860

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on location filming The Irishman in September 2017.

James Devaney/GC Images

At a press conference in London before a film festival screening, Pacino said he'd seen a cut of the movie before the effects were added and was simply swept up in the acting and the story. I feel like I see the movie the same way Pacino did -- with the different eras indicated by various acting and storytelling tools rather than by the visual effects. In fact, I almost wish that's what they did.

The Irishman is available to stream on Netflix. What if you could turn off the visual effects just the same as you'd turn on and off subtitles?

Without the digital effects, you'd see De Niro employing his bag of acting tricks. He gives the aged Sheeran a raspy whisper more gravelly than a cemetery driveway, and works backward from there. That combined with the different clothes and you get a strong sense of where you are in the story and on the calendar without counting the wrinkles on De Niro's face.

It's worked before. Remember the first time we meet De Niro in Goodfellas? He walks into a mob bar and drops hundreds to anyone who opens a door or keeps the ice cubes cold, while the voiceover explains he "couldn't have been more than 28 or 29 at the time."

De Niro was 46. And yet we buy him as a vital young man thanks to a strut and a shiny suit.

By the end of Goodfellas the character's age overtakes the actor's age, and it looks like the technology used to make De Niro look decades older is no more complicated than a handful of talcum powder in his hair. Yet Goodfellas is peerless in the way it communicates the passage of time -- the passing of specific times. The clothes, the cars, the music, even the crimes show the 20th century ticking by.

The period detail in The Irishman gives a strong sense of history, but the actors distract from that -- right up until the last half hour, that is. In the closing section of the film, the age of the actors becomes the most important thing.

For the final act, make-up and hair adjustments are used to wither De Niro. Sheeran lived into his 80s, long past most of his associates, and this slow, measured study of his lonely final days is horrifyingly riveting. I see my dad in Robert De Niro's performance, which means the moment he slowly topples to the carpet and lies there stricken and gasping is agonising to watch.

In some ways, the three long hours of gangster shenanigans preceding it are just a prologue to this final section. It's almost a diversion, a bait and switch -- come for mob movie action from the Goodfellas guys, get sucker-punched by a treatise on aging mortality.

Maybe The Irishman's gangster action would have looked more convincing if De Niro and Pacino had made it 10 or 20 years ago. But the final act of the film -- perhaps their final act, a swan song for the greatest of their generation -- could only have been made now. It's utterly, heartrendingly real. Expensive visual effects be damned, the finest parts of The Irishman are when De Niro acts his age.

Originally published Nov. 28.