As it reaches its 30th anniversary, it is time to proclaim that there are few movies as good as GoodFellas. The 1990 Martin Scorsese mobster movie is the very definition of classic, and was probably the best film of the entire decade. Others can argue whether it is Scorsese’s best — there are, after all, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ to deal with — but as far as I am concerned, it is his most consistently and effortlessly entertaining. To put on this movie is to be whisked into another world for almost three hours and never feel anything but exhilarated.
Yes, it is a violent movie about violent human beings — and I hesitate to even call some of the people in this movie human. It is profane and sometimes horrifying, and you wouldn’t want to know any of the people in GoodFellas personally — if you did, there would be something very, very wrong in your life. It is not even particularly original — after all, The Godfather did a great job of depicting this bloody, double-dealing, moral-free world and still stands as a great film. But whereas The Godfather is, first and foremost, a film about a family business, GoodFellas is about a way of life — it is about the Mafia with a capital M, and less about a family or even individual characters. Michael Corleone experiences a horrifying change of heart , one that changes the entire trajectory of the Corleone family. GoodFellas isn’t about that, not at all. It is about a bunch of guys with no heart. It’s about money — my money, and who’s got my fuckin’ money, and when I can expect to get my fuckin’ money — oh, and fuck you, pay me.
Scorsese has always made movies that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but GoodFellas is such a purely poetic film, that is so brisk and entertaining, that you forget to be offended. It is, above all else, a great black comedy — a Mafia movie that gets as many laughs as anything by the Farrelly Brothers. And they are great, earned laughs, punctuated by horror when someone gets stabbed, shot, or beaten. Scorsese knows this world so well — like the back of his fuckin’ hand — that he’s not afraid to let the humor come out. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are, I kid you not, as effective a comedy team as the guys on “Seinfeld.” You could substitute Jerry, Kramer and George here and not miss a beat. (Throw in Lorraine Bracco and you got Elaine.) I don’t mean to make light of the movie’s message — that the Mafia is a pack of dogs unfit to walk this Earth — Scorsese by no means endorses criminal behavior — but the actors and their dialogue are just, well, funny. Despite all the shootings, etc., it is impossible to dislike these horrible people.
Let me reiterate that Scorsese is not holding up mobsters and saying, “Will you look at these wonderful, misunderstood people?” No — he’s saying that, from inside this world, it all looks perfectly normal. Henry Hill, the main character played by Liotta, is an outsider who spent his whole life wanting to get in. “All my life, I wanted to be a gangster,” he says, in his first line of narration, and the movie is about how Henry not only became one (true story) but how his dream ended up — with him and his estranged wife under Witness Protection. Hardly an endorsement of crime as a wholesome way of life.
But with the money flowing and the laughs ringing (and the bodies piling up), why would you ever want to live any other way? For Henry, crime is an easy, fun way of making a buck — emphasis on fun. He gets special treatment in ways Scorsese describes at length, from girls and booze to the best seats in the finest restaurants. (He doesn’t even have to wait in line!) No, he can never be a “made guy,” because he’s half-Irish — the mob won’t admit anyone who isn’t full-blooded Italian, the lineage traceable to “the Old Country.” But that doesn’t keep Henry from getting his hands plenty dirty.
His partners in crime are Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci), lifelong mobsters who will rob or kill anyone to make a buck. They answer to Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the local neighborhood boss who runs his crew with an iron fist. Cross Paulie and you got life-threatening problems, make him his friend, and you can get anything you want — for awhile, and at a price.
The movie has no particular plotline but rather follows Henry through his days in the mob, beating up guys, bribing cops, etc. This never feels like anything but a natural, unforced narration — Scorsese never plays a note wrong. Liotta is totally believable as Henry, and De Niro and Pesci have never been better. Everyone is in their environment, completely at ease. We believe these people in this world, and understand how they could all feel so comfortable. This was, in essence, “The Sopranos” 10 years before the Sopranos came along.
When violence erupts, it is without warning. Witness the scene where Tommy — insane, unpredictable, completely unhinged — shoots a kid named Spider for being late with a drink. The dialogue that follows is classic mob tough-guy (“You’re gonna dig the fuckin’ hole!”) and outrageously funny. Yet somehow Scorsese also communicates that this is wrong — that there is something deeply fucked- up about these guys, who would kill a person over so very little. You could say that Scorsese has his cake and eats it too … but so what? The horror is beside the point. The point is that these guys exist in this world and this world has always existed — it is part and parcel of the American story.
The acting is genius-level simply because it is so hard to notice. You don’t catch De Niro acting the way you did (and were intended to) in Raging Bull. He’s quieter here, but somehow more menacing. He lets Pesci handle all the fireworks. Pesci turns in one of the great, original, terrifying, unforgettable performances, winning an Oscar for his work. This is his definitive role (forget those Home Alone flicks!) and he makes the movie his own. He gets the great “why am I funny?” scene (mostly improvised) but also so many other great scenes, like his berating of Spider or his “borrowing” of the butcher knife. Pesci somewhat recreated the performance five years later in Casino, another great Scorsese-De Niro pairing, but this one is still the best.
If Pesci and De Niro form one type of couple in GoodFellas, Liotta and Bracco form another, in Henry and Karen Hill. That neither of them won an Oscar is a travesty. They are the “heart” of the film, though they are both utterly heartless (or maybe soulless). Though they profess to love each other and their kids, it’s really all about money for Henry and Karen. Though the ultimate outsider — a Jewish girl, no less! — Karen is as deep into “the life” as Henry. He implicates her in his activities the day he beats up her old boyfriend and then thrusts his bloody pistol in her hand, telling her to “hide this.” From that moment on, she is on the hook. Later in the film, Karen is doing cocaine and helping Henry with his drug deals. Yet she also wants to pretend to be innocent — in fact, that’s what she tries telling the FBI when Henry finally runs out of money and turns himself in. These are disgusting people, finally wallowing in their own despair, but that doesn’t make them less fascinating to watch.
Scorsese shows us the whole world of the Mafia, from the nightclubs to the crime scenes to the family Christmases. We get to know literally dozens of minor characters, their funny names and habits, and see a lot of them die horribly. Yet that’s what they have coming. When you join the Mob — and Henry does so, willingly and with great glee — you throw your life down a rabbit hole. The threat of death or incarceration constantly hangs over you, and the chance that your best friend will betray you stands at 100 percent. Scorsese shows us how much fun this all is — the cinematography is whiz-bang, and the soundtrack is loaded with period hits from the Sixties and Seventies — but ends the ride with a shocker: Henry turned rat. He finked on his pals in court. It might be fun being in the Mob, at least for a while, but things don’t turn out OK. You eventually catch a knife in the back or a bullet in the head, and fellas, that’s no kinda life.