On Screen: The Many Saints of Newark Disappoints in The Sopranos’ Shadow

Digital illustration by Reid Alexander.

Welcome back to On Screen, The Augur Bit’s television and film review column! This time, I’ll be talking about one of HBO’s newest films, The Many Saints of Newark.

Directed by David Chase, the creator of the groundbreaking HBO series The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark acts as a prequel to Chase’s hit show. The movie stars Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti, who is new to viewers, because he died before the plot of The Sopranos begins. Michael Gandolfini takes on the role of the show’s main character, Tony Soprano, who in the show was played by his late father, James Gandolfini. 

At the time of its premiere in 1999, The Sopranos was unlike anything television had ever seen. The show juxtaposes the family life and criminal enterprise of the seemingly ruthless mob boss Tony Soprano, who decides to see a therapist. What made The Sopranos unique was that its protagonist was so obviously a bad person—or, as they’re now more commonly referred to, an anti-hero. The Sopranos was the first prominent show to glorify a villain, inspiring many of the 21st century’s top shows, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Dexter

When I first heard about The Many Saints of Newark, I was excited to revisit the world of The Sopranos. The movie is billed as an origin story of Tony Soprano, yet it fails to deliver on that promise. The film actually centers around Dickie Moltisanti, a character that Sopranos fans have no emotional connection to. 

Instead of focusing on Soprano’s upbringing, the movie opts to follow Moltisanti as he navigates his criminal life in Newark amid the riots of 1967. Soprano appears sparsely throughout the film, which disappointed me—and, I would expect, many other fans of The Sopranos.

But even given Soprano’s minimal presence in the film, it is still interesting to see younger versions of the characters I knew from the show and revisit some of its famous locations, like the pork store that the mob uses as a meeting place.

Another problem I have with The Many Saints of Newark is the movie’s uneven pacing. It feels strangely slow at points that could have easily been sped up and too fast during scenes that deserve more time. Because of that, the film feels like a very long two hours. 

In addition to the film’s awkward timing, the story structure feels disjointed as well. There is never a clear storyline or inciting incident. Most movies have a throughline focusing on a particular issue that reaches resolution by the film’s end. But this movie feels like merely a snapshot of days in the life of 1960s New Jersey mobsters. 

That approach worked perfectly in The Sopranos; the gradual, novelistic unfolding of a story filled with symbolism and deeper meanings made sense in a show that lasted 86 episodes—just over three days in total runtime. However, because The Many Saints of Newark is just a single, two-hour-long movie, the same style is not as effective. (It could have worked if the movie’s creators instead opted to make their project into a short series.)

Following the success of The Sopranos is a tough task; it’s nearly impossible to meet the expectations of a show that is often lauded as one of the best in television history. Sure enough, The Many Saints of Newark disappoints. It keeps the part of The Sopranos least applicable to film—the slow form of storytelling—and gets rid of the piece the fans wanted—a plot focused on the younger version of Tony Soprano. 

If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, it’s probably still worth watching this movie, just to see what the younger versions of your favorite characters are like. But if you haven’t watched the show, you should skip The Many Saints of Newark and instead watch The Sopranos itself. 

My Rating: 4/10

If you like this movie, you should watch: Breaking Bad, Dexter, and El Camino (a better version of a movie inspired by a television show!)

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