Saturday, October 8, 2011


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 92
Year: 1990
Writer: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi (adaptation), Nicholas Pileggi (book)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci

For any film to be successful, it must transport the viewer into the world of the protagonist, however real or fanciful that may be. We think of this rule more for science fiction or horror films, but “Goodfellas” may just be the movie that gives its viewer the most immersive experience in film history. It’s not about the mafia, it is the mafia. Unflinchingly.

This is the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta as an adult, Christopher Serrone as a teenager), his life in the mafia and ultimate betrayal of those he once loved to spare himself. As a kid, he looked across the street at a store the mafia owned and, as soon as he can, he nabs a part-time job. One thing leads to another and before we know it Henry is exploding cars for his buddies and taking as much off the top as he wants. When we first see Henry as an adult, we are struck by his laugh. The only way I can describe it here is violent. That’s fitting.

Henry describes, in voiceover, everything his does and the practices of his friends in the mafia in a straightforward way. It might be repugnant to the viewer, but to him it’s perfectly logical. We might not agree with it but, hey, if it works for him. And it does work for him for a very long while. He makes more money than one could imagine, marries a beauty (Lorraine Bracco), nabs several mistresses and treats his friends like “family,” and yes, I did mean that as a pun. Of course he’ll never really be an insider…he’ll never be “made”…because he’s only half Sicilian, but his charisma and sure business sense almost makes up for that blood shortcoming.

Life continues to get bigger and better for Henry. Sure, he goes to jail, but he’s treated like a king there and learns a new way to slice garlic that I really should try sometime. Yes, his wife holds a gun to his face because she knows he’s cheating on her, but she’s never actually going to leave him. They move into a house where everything is so expensive and over-the-top you just know it’s the ugliest place in the city. We also meet many of the people Henry works with, most notably Tommy (Joe Pesci) and James (Robert De Niro). And there’s food. Lots and lots of food. The rest of the world, meaning the large majority that has no connection to the mafia, doesn’t exist to him or his family.

Writers Martin Scorsese (also the director) and Nicholas Pileggi just dive right into the world and don’t look back. They have a lot of fun with the mythos of the mafia and what our expectations for this type of movie are. Early in the film Henry says Tommy is “funny” and Tommy goes on an almost violent tirade against him, but it was all just a gag…until Tommy does physically beat someone moments later. Tommy’s girlfriend boasts “He’s so jealous. He said if I even looked at another guy he’d kill me.” By this point the viewer is thinking “Sister, you don’t know the half of it.” One of the movie’s high points is when Henry’s wife Karen hangs out with all the other mafia wives and observes how similar they all are in their look and speech. It’s funny but, at the same time, very sad, especially since Karen becomes one of those women she mocks soon after.

Violence is always there in “Goodfellas.” It opens with a bloody man being stabbed savagely and shot repeatedly in a trunk, even though logic tells us that when so many gunshots are fired into the trunk of a car at least one would break through into the gas tank and explode the thing. Scorsese shows us Henry’s first encounter with mafia violence when a man comes to the store Henry works with a shot hand. He’s told moments later that he shouldn’t have wasted all those aprons he used to stop the man’s bleeding. When the violence comes, it’s usually in quick spurts that have all the more impact because of their briefness. These moments happen more and more often as the film develops.

Henry’s great life lasts for as long as it can…and then it’s over with the snap of someone’s fingers. It’s hard to imagine that Henry couldn’t have expected this (he always keeps a brick of cocaine on hand in his home for emergencies, after all), especially since no mention is made of what the retirement plan from the mafia was. But his sins come back to bite him in the butt during a brilliantly staged day where Henry drives back and forth to many of his friends’ and family’s homes in a haze of cocaine, all the while followed by a helicopter. We don’t feel bad for him when he finally loses everything. How can we? And his punishment…an endless life in the suburbs, seems more fitting than a bullet to the brain lesser filmmakers might have ended the film with.

Though Pesci’s unhinged performance is the best of the ensemble, the most interesting performance is indeed Liotta. Thank God for the voice-over, because it helps to steer us through the waves of Liotta’s character. When we first meet him he’s charming enough and handsome enough to get away with just about anything he wants to, and he seems to be channeling a lot of John Travolta’s charm, especially in the early scenes with Karen. But as he ages and gets oilier and less handsome, you begin to see the cracks. He needs that cocaine and those mistresses because they tell him lies that he’s the man he once was. Liotta goes big a few times, wonderfully over the top, but that only underlines as good as he is at underplaying the rest of his work.

Scorsese plays some camera tricks and, with his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, presents us with some tremendous long takes. Most of them work, though the many freeze-frames in the first act don’t hold up as well as the rest of the movie. Today they distract from instead of underlining what we see. However, that’s a small complaint when everything else around it is pitch-perfect.

Scorsese and Pileggi envelop the viewer so well into the world that you can’t help but lose control of your moral compass. I never “liked” Henry. Or Karen. Or Tommy. But I did find myself caring deeply for their world and involved in their fates. If a film’s creators can make me that invested in something so despicable, they’ve done the seemingly impossible, and the result is a masterpiece.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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