When the first trailer for The Many Saints of Newark dropped, I had never seen a single episode of The Sopranos. By the time I sat down to watch the movie, I had devoured the saga of Tony Soprano like it was a plate of gabagool. The Many Saints of Newark, then, felt to me like a finale; for thousands of other people, it’ll feel like a homecoming. This thing was destined to be an event. You can’t follow up on one of the most critically acclaimed shows in history without setting expectations sky-high. Given that, consider this review a form of expectation management.

The premise is irresistible to Sopranos fans. Dive into the era that set the stage for the show? See Tony Soprano as a young man? Yes, absolutely, no reservations here. Tony’s hardly the focus, though—his role in the story is that of a portent, not a protagonist. Even Dickie Moltisanti, the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, is treated like a piece of a larger puzzle. The Many Saints of Newark is a truer ensemble piece than The Sopranos: we may follow Dickie for much of it, but he’s not the domineering presence that Tony was. Where The Sopranos was a character study, its prequel is a period piece. The question dominating its marketing materials—who made Tony Soprano? —ostensibly points to Dickie, but the title of The Sopranos finale gave us the real answer. The prequel proceeds from there.

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On a conceptual level, it’s a wise move from David Chase, creator of The Sopranos and co-writer of the prequel. His scripts for The Sopranos were dense: complex plots, layered characters, a heavy dose of philosophy, and enough symbolism to fuel speculative “explained” articles until the end of time. His approach worked well for television, where all those elements had room to breathe. In order to maintain that feel for The Many Saints of Newark, a two-hour film, something had to give—and so the exploration of a mafioso’s soul has been toned down. What’s forefront is the world that raised the made guys: Newark, once a veritable playground for the American Mafia, now (1967, that is) a hotbed of escalating racial tension.

White flight, Black influx, white politicians and cops—a recipe for a necessity to take the power back. The Sopranos scrutinized the notion that the Mafia’s “community organizing” was still born of necessity at the turn of the millennium, sometimes contrasting Italian American stability with the plight of the Black community. The Many Saints of Newark lives in a key moment of that cultural shift. Leslie Odom Jr.’s character, Harold McBrayer—a former lackey of Dickie’s who strikes out on his own—is our window into the Black community’s fight for justice. Or at least he could’ve been.

That The Many Saints of Newark was written by TV writers is tangible. From a bird’s-eye view, the film’s structure is conducive to a broad, painterly period piece, but zoom in and you’ll find a mess of details fighting for attention: superficial details about Dickie that exchange depth for parallelism, adding up to a mere silhouette of his son’s character in the show; a nostalgic but overly familiar mob story; winking callbacks to The Sopranos; racial commentary that builds up and then disappears for large portions of the story. Some of it works; hardly any of it hits hard. It’s as if the writers knew they had to make concessions for a shorter runtime, sketched the film’s structure accordingly, and then caved in to including a slice of everything. It’s too little of too much.

Not helping the film’s identity problem is Alan Taylor’s direction. Chase seems like the kind of writer who’d leave extensive directing notes in his scripts. Were the director of a Sopranos episode to leave out a shot of trees in the wind—a recurring motif in the show—Chase’s allegorical undercurrent would be undercut. He intended on directing The Many Saints of Newark but unfortunately suffered a heart attack that left him unable to do so. As a replacement director, Taylor does a fine job, but a curiously tame one—he did pair up with the DP of his blockbuster efforts Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys. The Sopranos’ cinematography, blocking, and lighting felt inspired by Scorsese and Coppola; The Many Saints of Newark feels beholden to Hollywood house style. At its best, the direction is reserved; most of the time, it’s glossily functional.

The film is most successful when it’s playing to the crowd. The strongest emotional response it wrested out of me was laughter, after a particularly witty throwback to a famous Sopranos line. A few of the actors playing beloved characters are pure gold: Vera Farmiga is perfect as living black hole Livia Soprano, and Michael Gandolfini stepping into his father’s shoes is as powerful as you’d expect. Some performances are mere impressions, though—John Magaro’s Silvio is practically wearing a Steven Van Zandt Halloween mask.

Even the callbacks wear thin after a while. References to The Sopranos approach Disney levels of cutesiness: seeing young Tony at a session with his guidance counselor was literally an SNL gag in 2013. When the film starts answering questions that never needed answering in The Sopranos, its kinship with the show eats its own tail. Whether a finale or a homecoming, The Many Saints of Newark is disappointing either way.

★★   (2/5)