GOODFELLAS (1990)

  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writers: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, based on the non-fiction book Wiseguy by Pileggi
  • Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, and Paul Sorvino
  • Accolades: 2012 AFI Top 100 list (#92), 1 Oscar (Best Supporting Actor – Joe Pesci), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Martin Scorsese, Best Supporting Actress – Lorraine Bracco, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on TNT app, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video or AppleTV

Let’s talk about gangster movies. There is a segment of the movie-going public for whom it is basically the most prestigious genre of movie. Though it was Francis Ford Coppola who elevated the genre to its dizziest heights with the Godfather trilogy, Martin Scorsese is the king of the genre. There are many variations, but the classic mob movie of the Scorsese/Coppola school has a tendency to follow the same pattern. At first, it’s all respectable shakedowns. Life is great! If a few guys get shot, well, they deserve it. But then things start to get in the way. The wrong person has to be bumped off. Somebody starts to get into hard drugs, and in the end it all falls apart.

What makes Goodfellas different, to the extent that it is, is the way it manages to play these tropes on multiple levels. The movie is propelled by the persistent narration of its central character, Henry (Ray Liotta). Henry’s narration is sometimes at odds with what’s actually happening on screen. The narration keeps making excuses for terrible actions we’re seeing on screen, but we know they’re terrible. For its devotees, the mob movie is about wishing you could be these guys. That you could make people listen to you, and if they talk back you can shoot them. That you didn’t have your crappy job where you have to listen to whatever your boss says. Goodfellas is full of conversations in which men don’t listen to each other at all, repeating themselves over and over in an attempt to overpower the other people in the conversation. There are pretty much exactly two reactions to this: that these people are jerks, or to wish you could be more like them.

The story of Goodfellas is based on the real-life New York Irish-Italian mobster Henry Hill, who as a kid idolizes the local mob and its capo Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). He grows up to become a successful gangster, along with his friends, the calculating Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and the completely unhinged Tommy (Joe Pesci). He also meets a local Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco) who, despite all of the advice of her parents and friends, is kind of into the whole thing. Karen gets to pop in with her own narration from time, which is where we get the line, “I know there are women who would have gotten out of the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide, but I didn’t. I got to admit the truth, it turned me on.” He marries her.

But this is not the sort of thing that lasts. Tommy shoots a few too many people for talking back to him. Jimmy masterminds the JFK Lufthansa robbery, which was up until that time the most money anybody had ever stolen at once, then becomes increasingly paranoid about everyone who did the robbery with him. Several of them end up dead, in a famous montage set to Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” As for Henry, he gets into the drug trade, with plenty of sampling his own product. The final section of the movie chronicles Henry and Karen’s descent into paranoia, complete with phantom helicopter, until he has no choice to but to go into witness protection and testify against all his fellow “wise guys.”

The most famous bit of Goodfellas is probably the scene in a nightclub where Pesci tries to start a fight over nothing, after Liotta tells him he’s “funny.” “Funny how? Like I amuse you?” Most of Pesci’s scenes are like this, stream of consciousness prickly anxiety, in which he is always one wrong remark from trying to kill somebody. He has found a world in which these traits are acceptable, and he sticks with it right to the end. Pesci’s performance won the movie’s only Oscar. Ironically, for a character that never shuts up, he gave perhaps the shortest acceptance speech in history: “It’s my privilege, thank you.”

The part I remember about this movie is the third act dissolution, which does a better job of approximating having a nervous breakdown than almost anything I can think of. Henry may be using cocaine to approximate what I get 100% naturally, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Details about all the things he has to do to make dinner get mixed in with the same emphasis as the part where he’s being supposedly chased around town by a helicopter.

Goodfellas was neither Scorsese’s first gangster movie, nor his last. Several of the same actors are in last year’s The Irishman, which very clearly comes from a very similar place as this movie. Scorsese is an Italian-American from New York who has repeatedly said he is “fascinated with the mob lifestyle.” That is why Goodfellas seems to understand these guys much more than some other mob movies. It knows that the way they see themselves is very different from what they actually do. Scorsese is a great filmmaker. I have really enjoyed many of his movies over the years. He can basically do whatever he wants, but he keeps coming back to this territory.

Yet where Scorsese and I have our disconnect is that I just don’t share his fascination with these people. These are jerks. Henry sleeps around on his girlfriend, then when she freaks out and points a gun in his face, he says whatever she wants to hear, then immediately drops the facade the moment she wavers and starts screaming at her again. Early on in the movie the mob guys beat up Henry’s postman to prevent him from bringing letters telling his parents he’s not going to school. They lie to each other and shoot each other, and, you know, other people as a matter of course. That’s who they are. No amount of getting tables at the nightclub in the front row is going to change that.

Which is really my position on most anti-heroes, and I know that I may be in the minority. You can do them, I’m not against it, but if you start asking me to root for them I am highly skeptical. This is why I am not as enraptured with TV series like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos (the other best known role of Bracco’s career, as it happens) as much as many of my contemporaries. The fact that someone is “doing it for their family” or whatever is actually not a good enough reason for me to still be willing to forgive them after they shoot people. I don’t have to root for characters, but, especially in TV series, that tends to be the ask they make over time. I really do think it comes back to what I said at the beginning, that it’s about wish-fulfillment. Some people wish they were bigger or tougher or more confident than they were in their everyday lives. I’m lacking a lot of those same wishes. The idea of starting a conflict out of nothing, as happens over and over in this movie, makes my skin crawl.

But I’m missing the point, I think. Scorsese is a master, and there are lots of beautiful shots in this movie, plus jokes that are actually funny. His camera brings us into a specific perspective and doesn’t let up the whole movie. Details are there for a reason, whether it’s the way Paulie chops garlic or the way one girl casually says to another as a camera pans down the bar, “He’s so jealous. If I even look at another guy, he’ll kill me.” “That’s really great,” her friend replies, almost convincingly. One of the more famous “tracking shots” in the movies follows Henry and Karen on their first date, when he takes her around the back of the Copacabana nightclub and through the kitchens to “avoid the line.” This shot was three minutes long, designed to show how the lifestyle could be so seductive to some people. It apparently took dozens of takes. One time they got everything right until the comedian on stage, Henny Youngman playing himself, got his own catchphrase wrong. But they did eventually get it right, and here we all are, thirty years later.

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