Not, by any means, the most important fact about Martin Scorsese's exhaustive new biographical epic The Irishman, but to me easily the most distracting: it is not titled The Irishman. The film has been adapted by Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt's 2004 nonfiction novel I Heard You Paint Houses, and that is the only title ever given onscreen, which happens twice: first near the beginning, in a Godardian series of rhythmic text cards that chunk it out as "I HEARD / YOU / PAINT HOUSES", and second during the end credits scroll, when the whole title is given all at once. Since I Heard You Paint Houses is an inestimably superior title than The Irishman, with sadder resonances once we've seen the movie and know what's going on, I can't begin to tell you why this happened.

But anyway, there is an Irishman: Frank Sheeran, an Irish Teamster and mafioso adrift in a sea of Italians. He's played by Robert De Niro, which isn't quite as asinine as it sounds, when we remind ourselves that despite how much he's leaned into Italian characters throughout his career, De Niro is exactly as Irish as he is Italian (25% in both cases). This does not make it any less weird to cast him as a character whose Irishness-as-opposed-to-Italianness is a characteristic that substantially drives the entire narrative. Also, I would maybe have accepted all of this if the filmmakers hadn't decided to make De Niro look more Irish by means of digitally coloring his eyes blue. This is a tiny thing compared to the much more famous visual effect splashing around the movie: De Niro, along with several other iconic actors, has been digitally de-aged (and aged-up) to cover a 40-year span of history, and there's something ineffable and uncanny about seeing a slightly blurry 40-something De Niro move with the stiffness of a 70-something (this is not nearly as big a problem with the other actors similarly given digital facelifts). But it's not remotely as uncanny as seeing a De Niro of any age and any blurriness with blue eyes.

That's a lot of pissiness, and I won't say that The Irishman doesn't deserve it, because it absolutely does. But it also deserves a lot of praise. Really, it deserves a whole bunch of stuff, because at a monumental three hours and 29 minutes, there's a lot in The Irishman of just about everything: pure unadulterated masterpiece-level directing from one of American cinema's most astute craftsmen; soggy, over-articulated storytelling; brilliant performances; mediocre performances; irritatingly self-conscious This Is America mythmaking; a rich and sad and breathtaking look at how shitty it is to get extremely old and find yourself itching to both make peace with your past and also avoid thinking about the things you regret. It has some of Thelma Schoonmaker's all-time best editing and some of Rodrigo Prieto's most indifferent and blandly functional cinematography. If you make a definitive claim about any individual aspect of the movie, there is something within it that will flatly contradict you. That's just kind of how it would have to be, when Scorsese - one of the most productively messy and exploratory of all American filmmakers - makes his extremely self-conscious Big Career Summation.

So with that in mind, time to start in with the ambivalent statements that argue against themselves, such as: this is all the most Martin Scorsese movie you could possibly imagine, and it is also a film that finds him obviously trying to avoid all of his standard tricks. Surprisingly, for something that lumbers in at three and a half hours (the director's longest work, by quite a lot), The Irishman is extremely restrained: there are tracking shots, yes, but even at their most elaborate and curlicued, they're not trying to show off, but to sink us deep into the emotional state of the main character; there is easily-recognised pop music used to set a time period and a social class, but the film also cuts off music entirely for an enormously long sequence around its two-thirds mark, all the better to focus on what a psychologically draining thriller sequence, the film has prepared for its tragic climax. By 2019, Martin Scorsese has absolutely no need to prove to any living soul that he knows how to make a movie, but The Irishman still has a conspicuous precision to it, as though he's asking us to sense the fine elegance of his and Schoonmaker's work together; a sense in which every shot and beat is there to serve an exact purpose and firmly, inexorably guide us through the movie's heaving emotional and historical journey. It is the least-freewheeling film that I think he's ever directed, in fact, which is good and bad. Good because there's a thrill in watching immaculate filmmaking unfold at a steady drip: the filmmakers have so tightly controlled pacing that even I, with my ideological zealotry about shorter running times being necessarily better running times, can't honestly claim that I think this 209-minute beast wastes more than maybe 15 or 20 of those minutes. Bad because there's a definite pre-digested chilliness to this all. One does not go on a voyage of discovery with The Irishman. It already has all of the answers and presents them to us with absolutely no doubt as to how we're supposed to process them.

Truth be told, a lot of those answers precede the movie entirely. The film's story, told by an ancient Sheeran to an unknown interlocutor in the 1990s (it is possible, even probably, that he's simply reciting his history to the Spirit of Cinema itself), starts during his days in the 1950s as a truck driver who catches the eye of the Philadelphia mafia first through mobbed-up Teamster lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), and then through Bill's cousin Russell (Joe Pesci), the boss of the Northeastern Pennsylvania mob, and quietly one of the most influential and important mafiosi in the United States. Russell takes an immediate liking to him, and over the next twenty-odd years nudges him to become a top-notch "house painter" - a code for mafia hitman, owing to the blood splatters of their victims "painting" walls - and one of the closest confidantes of infamous German-Irish union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As Sheeran navigates the peculiarities of these two friendships, the history of the 20th Century plays out in an unusually personal register, with the Cuban Revolution and the election of John F. Kennedy in particular setting things on a track that will eventually force him to chose between Bufalino and Hoffa.

The specific framework to this is new: this is all presented as the rambling memory of a man in his 80s, enthusiastically bending our ear as he digs for the smallest details of the most incidental moments from 30 years ago, while summing up entire decades in a sentence (the finest touch: every new character, the more minor the better, is introduced with a title card telling us how he's going to die 20 years in the future. Which is, from my experience, very true to how eightysomethings compartmentalise history). And it's a good framework, given added resonance by the fact that Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, are all themselves shockingly old these days, and the mere fact that they're all collaborating on a gangster epic is itself a huge cue to nostalgically recall all the times we've seen them playing in this generic sandbox before.

But, well, we've seen them play in this generic sandbox before. As directed by one of the most unapologetic cinephiles in world history, The Irishman is full of cinematic references, and a great many of them are wholly unexpected, but it is particularly reminiscent of three films in particular: 1974's The Godfather, Part II (starring Pacino and De Niro), 1990's Goodfellas (directed by Scorsese, starring De Niro and Pesci), and 1995's Casino (also directed by Scorsese with De Niro and Pesci). Those films, as well as 1972's The Godfather (which isn't as persistent a reference point, though there's a "mob hit in an Italian restaurant" sequence that very overtly recalls that movie) are predominately responsible for establishing a very particular set of thematic associations for very long mafia movies: they are overt metaphors for The American Experience After World War II, very much with all of those capital letters in place; they are both attracted and ultimately repulsed by the thuggish masculinity of their protagonists; they are about brash youths getting in too deep too quickly and being offered ample time to regret the soul-darkening life they can never escape. The Irishman is certainly a strong execution of all this, but it is a completely unsurprising execution. The moral lessons the film offered, the ways in which it offers them, and the way that history and personal life intersect, are all pretty much exactly what I expected before seeing even one frame of the movie.

That isn't the worst crime, of course; surprises are nice, but seeing seasoned pros do great work is nice too. And for the most part, these pros are fantastic; I will admit to finding De Niro's performance a bit distant and too stuck in his own head. But it's great seeing Pesci in a movie again (this is only his third performance of the 21st Century), and it's great work, bolted-down in a calm declarative register that feels fatherly before it reveals itself to be authoritarian. Pacino is even better: this is first unassailably great performance since The Insider way back in 1999, and I think this is stronger even than that. A morally righteous firebrand, demagogue, and prickly egotist like Hoffa is already a great fit for Pacino's more unhinged acting tics, but the actor goes further than this, tightly modulating his energy levels in every scene. It's both slightly horrifying and tremendously charismatic work, exactly the balance that the film and character need, and the whole movie ends up re-defining itself around Pacino: the rhythm of scenes and the pacing of the editing both completely change when he enters the picture and then again when he exits (not a spoiler: even the film points out that if you know one thing about Hoffa, it's that he mysteriously disappeared in 1975). Given the outsize influence that Hoffa exerts on Sheeran, this destablising energy that Pacino brings feels precisely right for the movie.

It does mean, unfortunately, that The Irishman is sort of two movies: an incredibly engaging movie about Jimmy Hoffa with Frank Sheeran as our conduit into that story, tucked inside a far more sedate and predictable movie about Frank Sheeran himself. To be blunt, none of the way that the movie uses its last thirty minutes to hide a referendum on Scorsese's career and the history of the mafia movie inside a referendum on Sheeran's life interests me; it feels safe and obvious. At least Silence, the director's last film, was a great deal more complicated and challenging in how it served as a referendum on Scorsese's Catholicism. But since I've now invoked that film, might as well point out that The Irishman and Silence were both long-gestating passion projects for the director, and that's manifest in the lavish care and focus present in every frame, every cut, and every performance beat. It is a movie that has been worked out. This does make it much more admirable than lovable, I think, and I remained firmly at arm's length throughout the running time; but by God, it is elegantly done, and such a definitive statement by an artist of Scorsese's prominence is worth taking seriously even if it kind of feels exactly like the definitive statement that you'd predict Scorsese would eventually make as far back as so, say, 1992.