Much attention has been paid to Scorsese's use of CGI to allow his elderly stars to play younger versions of themselves, and he gets credit for using this not as a stunt but in an attempt to make a better movie. Matt Zoller Seitz argues that the CGI isn't particularly convincing, "but if you decide it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter." The icon status of the main actors does matter, and the movie is better with De Niro et al as themselves than it would be with less iconic actors playing in the flashback scenes.
Scorsese is returning to the gangsters he has obsessed about throughout his career, which makes The Irishman a bit retrograde. But the tone is autumnal, which separates it from something like Mean Streets (still his best film). Scorsese is looking back, just like Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) does throughout the film.
Just by casting stars from his earlier movies, Scorsese invites us to make comparisons. And those comparisons remind us how far we have all come ... at least, we're all older. It's not clear if Scorsese's attitude towards his characters has changed as much as CGI makes the actors change.
The cast does wonders. Robert De Niro doesn't suck, which is always a possibility in his later years. Al Pacino modulates his usual bluster ... it comes out when appropriate, not constantly. Joe Pesci is the biggest surprise. The man known for over-the-top tantrums plays it low-key here. He convinces us of his power, even as he refuses to over-emote. Meanwhile, Anna Paquin is amazing as Sheeran's daughter. She purposely doesn't have many lines ... Scorsese counted on her to be able to express her thoughts and emotions on her face, and the result is a condemnation of her father that is more powerful than words. The complaints that she doesn't have enough lines are misguided. (The general complaints about the superfluous nature of the women characters, on the other hand, are sadly on target.)
By the end of their lives, these characters can barely move for being so old. They are stripped of the glamour that filmmakers like Scorsese have always given them. In that sense, Scorsese is growing older, too. And with the realization that Paquin's daughter is right, that Frank Sheeran is ultimately an empty vessel with no real positive attributes, Scorsese reaches a point he doesn't often go after. The last half hour or so of The Irishman can even be read as Scorsese's admission, at long last, that his and our fascination with this milieu is based on an attraction to a false iconography. The script is based on a book by Charles Brandt whose veracity has been challenged. Even as he is dying, it seems, Frank is trying to take credit for things he did and didn't do, thinking that those things bring him glory.
Finally, editor Thelma Schoonmaker deserves special attention. She just turned 80, so she fits right in with this production. I love one of her most famous quotes, when asked how a nice lady like her could work on all those violent Scorsese movies. "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them."