Wednesday, September 15, 2010


When GoodFellas, a mobster story that spanned over thirty years, was released in 1990, Ray Liotta was 36 years old and his co-stars, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, were both 47.  When they first pop up in the movie, they are supposed to be in their early twenties (except DeNiro, who was supposed to be around thirty).  Sure, they aged somewhat throughout the film, but until you see DeNiro put on reading glasses in the last quarter of the movie, it's pretty insignificant stuff.  I point this out because most movies would take strides to make these actors look younger, a la Patrick Stewart in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Why doesn't director Martin Scorsese bother to disguise the age of his actors?  Probably for the same reason most viewers don't notice it: because this is a cool movie and, like the wise guys they portray, these actors can get away with murder as far as America's concerned.

This is the life story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish kid in New York whose life dream was to be a mobster.  At a young age, he began to run (often illegal) errands for the local mob boss, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino).  As he grew older, he befriended the hot-tempered Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and the danger-loving Jimmy "The Gent" Conway (Robert DeNiro).  Together, they began hijacking trucks and lived life as young men with money often do; they drank all night, went to clubs, and enjoyed female companionship.  This continued for years, and was capped by Henry's courtship and marriage to a local girl, Karen (Lorraine Brocco).  This movie is clearly a love letter to the mobster lifestyle, with all its freedom, power and vices.  That much freedom, power and vice left unchecked will inevitably lead to a desire for more of each, though.  As Henry and his friends moved from up-and-comers in their mob family to essentially independent operators, their adventures are played for higher stakes.  Hijacking trucks with willing drivers gave way to multimillion dollar heists, organized by Jimmy.  Instead of sticking with low-risk enterprises like gambling, Henry started dealing drugs. And Tommy...well, his temper started to become the stuff of legend.  With higher stakes, the lifestyle became less friendly and more dangerous, less about the crew and more about survival.

What makes GoodFellas a great movie is its attitude.  The film opens with Ray Liotta's voice-over, famously claiming that "as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."   That's pretty different from most film portrayals of mobsters, right?  Even in The Godfather, Michael never wanted in on the "family business."  Anyone can understand the allure of money and power, but even the most romanticized mob films show a horrible price to be paid for such indulgences.  That eventual comeuppance is inevitable for any big time gangster, but the attraction toward that danger is what sets this movie apart from its mob movie brethren.  We watch Henry Hill, Tommy DeVito, and Jimmy Conway do whatever they want to whoever they want for decades, just waiting for the hammer to eventually drop.  And when it does, there is no moment of repentance or remorse.  We just get Ray Liotta's voice-over again, telling us how ordinary civilian life, free from drugs, police, murder, and betrayal is basically for schmucks.  And we agree with him.

Interesting tidbit: GoodFellas drops about 300 F-bombs in its 145 minute run, averaging over 2 "fucks" per minute, the ninth most for any feature film. While cursing is certainly not a benchmark for quality cinema, that is an astonishing number.

The acting and directing in this movie is superb.  While Scorsese is not at his showiest here, he handles things well and oftentimes puts the camera in a position so that the viewer feels like more of a spectator, which just reconfirms the movie's fascination with the wise guy lifestyle.  As for the acting, Joe Pesci deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role.  He was loud, obnoxious, and occasionally frightening with his nonchalant attitude toward violence.  And yet, he managed to be kind of funny.  That's a tough balance to strike.  Ray Liotta is certainly more sympathetic in the lead role, but his character's purpose is to react to the mob lifestyle, so his solid performance pales in comparison to his co-lead actors.  Lorraine Brocco did a pretty good job in her supporting role, but I think she usually gets too little credit for her role in the movie; as Karen, she not only provides the "civilian" reactions to the wise guy life, but she shares the narrative.  Karen's role is often overlooked because this is such a guy movie, but the movie is told from her point of view, too, and Brocco's performance (particularly with her voice-overs) helps keep this movie from spinning into a caricature of mob life.  As far as the rest of the cast goes, they're serviceable.  Paul Sorvino is capable of some surprisingly imposing silences, but he's the highlight of the supporting cast.  Michael Imperioli and Samuel L. Jackson both make noteworthy cameos, though.

I enjoy this movie on a lot of levels, but it has never been one of my favorite Scorsese films.  Sure, it's pretty awesome, but it's soooooo looooooong!  It's not even super long at 146 minutes, but it feels about as long as The Return of the King.  Why?  I'm not sure.  Aside from using the camera to follow characters like they're celebrities, Scorsese's direction is pretty cut and dried.  The problem is certainly not the acting.  Both DeNiro and Pesci are fascinating to watch.  I think my problem with this film is the position it takes.  Not the moral position of celebrating an outlaw culture; that's pretty cool.  I'm talking about the point-of-view character.  While Henry is part of the action, he's never the most interesting character on the screen.  He's kind of like Smalls from The Sandlot, watching the greatness of Benny the Jet.  Lots of movies choose a voyeuristic POV character, but since this movie is (more or less) set up as a Henry Hill biopic, I think his character should be the most interesting cast member.  Would this movie work better from Jimmy or Tommy's point of view?  Not as the story stands, no.  I just think that, in a biopic-type movie, the main character's accomplishments should be the most dramatic and memorable ones; if you want to use a less memorable character to tell the story, fine, but use the movie to frame a more compact set of events.  As it stands, though, I see this a a major failure in the storytelling department.

Aside from my admittedly unusual personal problem with this movie, GoodFellas is an unabashed classic.  There has never been a film that depicted the life of a mobster so gloriously, and yet showed all the horror that comes with it.  For that, it deserves all the respect it has earned over the years.  Aside from The Godfather Part II, this might be the ultimate gangster movie.  It's not a masterpiece, though, with all due respect.

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