Friday, November 23, 2012

Film #90: Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Initial Release Country: United States

Timed Previously Seen: probably around eight or nine. Maybe more. 

Rapid-Fire Summary

Goodfellas is a rather epic movie, spanning several centuries. I’ll keep my summary short, but if you want many more of the details, you can check out the synopsis here at imdb’s website. Here’s my version:

In the late 1950s in Queens, New York, young teenager Henry Hill has big dreams. He dreams of becoming a gangster, like the fellows that he sees regularly on the streets of his neighborhood. Though his parents completely disapprove, Henry gets more and more involved with the crime circuit in the area – starting with simple errand-running for book-makers, progressing to orchestrated property destruction, and advancing to the sale of stolen goods. The more he gets entrenched in the life of a criminal, the more he feels welcomed by his fellow criminals, and the more normal it all becomes for him.

This normalized life of larceny follows Henry into adult life (played by Ray Liotta), when he regularly partners with two other noted crooks – the thief and hitman, Irishman Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the volatile yet charismatic Sicilian mobster Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). These three, along with many other local hoods, spend the next few decades of their adult lives robbing, and occasionally killing, their way to lives of luxury for themselves, their wives, children, and mistresses. Though their methods of attaining wealth are highly illegal, all of them keep up the appearances of being responsible family men who are “providers” for their friends and families. This is all in keeping with the Italian mafia tenets of organized crime, to which all of these three men pay homage.

Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy taking a look at on of their many stashes of ill-gotten money.

Eventually, however, things start to crumble. Starting in the later 1970s and into the early 1980s, Henry starts to get involved in selling cocaine. Despite clear warnings from the mafia father-figure, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry continues to sell the highly illegal substance. His mistakes catch up to him, and he is caught by the police. Now facing the very likely prospect that he will be killed by any one of his criminal associates, in order to prevent him from informing on them, Henry and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) decide that their only recourse is to join the witness protection program. Henry testifies against all of his former friends and criminal associates, thus escaping jail time. However, he lives out the rest of his days in a sterilized suburban neighborhood, far removed from the action, money, and excitement of his former life of crime.

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing)

Goodfellas is an absolute classic, and it may be the only English-language mafia movie that can hold a candle to The Godfather, in terms of scope, technique, and revolutionizing the genre.

I first saw this movie in the theater when my mother brought me to see it. I was only fourteen or fifteen at the time, and I remember the language blowing me away. The characters drop the f-bomb like most people blink, and violence is as normal as getting a haircut. About an hour into the movie, my mother, who grew up in Queens right at the time that this movie’s events were taking place, leans over to me and says “I think I grew up with these guys.” Now, she didn’t mean that she literally grew up with Henry Hill and the gang; she just meant that she grew up with guys eerily like them. She always said that the dialogue and attitudes depicted in Goodfellas were spot-on, in terms of how the guys from those neighborhoods spoke and acted.

This authenticity has been a hallmark of Scorsece’s New York pictures right from the very beginning. While he’s certainly done other excellent movies that are not based in New York (The Departed, Kundun, et al), his street-level stories have always been his signature ones. The verbal exchanges in Goodfellas, like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, feel completely organic. Despite being so deeply rooted in a particular region, even people who have never been within a thousand miles of Long Island can sense and be hypnotized and amused by it.

Just another night of booze and poker. This is one of the many scenes in which the dialog and interactions between the New York tough guys are at their most realistic. 

But the dialogue is simply one of several triumphs of this movie. If The Godfather was the ultimate American criminal take on a classical Greek tragedy, Goodfellas is the ultimate deconstruction of the gangster myth. Based on the real story of Henry Hill, the movie depicts the ground-level thugs who made the mob go. There are no honorable Vito Corleones here. Henry Hill and his cohorts were unapologetic thieves and murderers who reveled in their power over others. One line that sums them up fairly well is when Henry Hill is describing Jimmy: “The one thing Jimmy loved to do was to steal. I mean, he actually liked it. Jimmy was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies.” These guys knew they were bad, embraced it, and pummeled anyone who had a problem with it.

Tied to this is probably the element that truly sets the movie apart from other classic gangster movies. Through Henry Hill’s life story, we see the complete and utter sham that the “honor” of the mafia is. All of the seeming friendships that Henry makes are only authentic as long as they don’t threaten any of his fellow thieves’ illicit livelihoods. The moment any one of the crew is suspected of threatening others’ freedom and fortunes, that crew member is not long for this world. The camaraderie is revealed as shallow in the face of real adversity, as evidenced by the protagonist himself. After decades of thinking of his criminal associates as family, he turns on them to protect himself and sends them all to prison. Goodfellas may have been the first film to so carefully and stylishly deconstruct the myth of honor among mobster thieves.

Normally, much of the above would make for thoroughly repugnant, unwatchable characters. Yet herein lies one of the most brilliant part of this movie – at times, you forget what they are and get completely caught up with who they are. Whether it’s Tommy cracking up his fellow mobsters with hilarious stories, Jimmy railing against the stupidity of his partners in crime, or Henry trying to juggle his passionately crazy wife and mistresses, it’s simply fun to watch. Most of the time, you laugh at them, but some of the time you actually laugh with them. There are even times when you feel a twinge of sympathy, as when Henry learns that Karen has flushed their bags of cocaine, their only remaining source of revenue, down the toilet, effectively flushing his entire life down the toilet. His desperation and fear are so palpable that you might be tempted to forget, just for a few seconds, that it’s all his selfish own doing.

Karen visits Henry while he serves time. At this point, it almost seems as normal for us the viewers as it does for the troubled couple and their kids.

All of these moments come through in large part due to the acting. While De Niro rightfully got top billing for this movie and did an outstanding job as Jimmy, it was Pesci, Liotta, and the entire ensemble crew that fully rounds out the picture and makes it come to life. By using that rare combination of world-class actors with lesser known, fully capable New York regionals, not one moment of Goodfellas rings untrue. For the full two-and-a-half hours, they pull you right into a completely different world.

It goes without saying that Scorsese was arguably at his finest with this movie. The cinematography, editing, and music are all blended into a fast-paced story that hums along without missing a single beat. Of his great films (of which there are many), this one is arguably his very best, and one would be hard-pressed to find much fault with it. At this point, anyone who is into crime movies has seen and loves this film. If, by chance, you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor. As long as you are not put off by rough language and graphic violence (none of which is gratuitous, by the way – we need to see how visceral these thugs can be, lest we start to glamorize them), you need to watch this true modern masterpiece.

Henry takes one last look at us from his quaint little house, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program. While he survives, he would hardly call it a "life," as he came to know it on the streets of New York.

A side-note: Any fan of Goodfellas should watch Casino. It’s sometimes called “Goodfellas 2” with good reason. It’s certainly not a sequel, but so much of the tone and feel of it is the same, that one might feel like they’re watching the companion piece to the earlier film. Casino is a bit more sprawling, and some say bloated (I disagree), but it’s another excellent film in the same vein.

That’s a wrap. 90 shows down. 15 to go.

Coming Soon: Unforgiven (1992)

From the movie that deconstructed mafia gangsterism to the movie that deconstructed the American Western film. This is another of my absolute, hands-down, all-time favorites. I’m looking forward to watching it again and writing out my thoughts on the dark tale of Will Munny.