Robert DeNiro is an emotional black hole at the center of this 3-hour gangster epic. He is the narrator, speaking (to whom?) from a wheelchair in his nursing home, but I never felt anything from or about his extraordinary journey from trucker to hitman to union boss to convict to relic, not from his relationships to his wife and daughters, nor his allegiance and betrayal of Jimmy Hoffa. There are cold-blooded murders aplenty in the movie, with “cold” being the operative word. First, I never saw DeNiro as “Frankie Sheeran.” He was always Robert DeNiro. The twinkly smirk identified the actor, not the character, and I kept waiting for DeNiro the comic over-the-top performer to break out. Second, he wasn’t even remotely Irish. There was more anguish in 20 seconds of Banderas in Pain and Glory than 180 minutes of DeNiro here. You wonder if Scorsese centered his film on DeNiro because they have been friends since they were 16 and the younger DeNiro meant so much to Scorsese’s career, which he was now summing up.
In contrast, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci were wonderful, as the only other characters with any depth of personality. There were scores of others – the credits go on for days – but all of them, especially the wives, are just colorful Post-It notes stuck on DeNiro’s story. The film often plays as a documentary: mobsters are introduced, with their eventual fates superscripted, more for historical “accuracy” than for dramatic purposes. The movie’s structure itself is anti-drama, as the plot rolls on for quite awhile after the main story ends, sort of like life.