I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #94, Goodfellas. Apparently Henry Hill keeps blowing his Witness Protection cover because he can’t stop bragging about being the Goodfellas guy, basically opening himself up to be whacked. For as much as mobsters talk about “business,” they could clearly use a quick lesson in cost-benefit analysis.
Tattaglias Did It
Do you hate quoters as much as I do? You know, the guys who have nothing funny of their own to say so they fall back on “I gotta have more cowbell,” “Simpsons did it” and “I’m Rick James, bitch” like it makes them funny? Every once-funny moment of Family Guy has been beaten to the ground by these unfunny hacks, and it’s even gotten to the point that my spine starts stiffening any time somebody begins a thought with “Did you see the South Park where…”
Quoting can be an acceptable, even valuable, conversation tool. But it’s gotten to the point where the quoting culture has artificially inflated the importance, humor and badass-ness of many movie moments by ad nauseum repetition. I can’t tell you how bummed I was the first time I saw The Terminator, only to find that the “I’ll be back” line I’d heard so much about turned out to be a forgettable moment tucked away in an otherwise awesome shootout. I also had that same reaction to “Say hello to my little friend” in Scarface (not even the most badass thing he says in the movie).
Thank God there are some precious moments that are impervious to over-quoting. Observe.
This scene is the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and probably the reason Joe Pesci won an Oscar.
If you haven’t seen Goodfellas, you probably still know about this scene from one place or another (probably Goodfeathers), but you may not be as familiar with how the original scene plays out. While discovering the original contexts for the over-quoted examples given above made the scenes anticlimactic, seeing Pesci fly off the handle in its original context actually enhances the entire film. These guys are high-gloss, low-class, casually violent fear mongers who don’t just whack people because it’s business -- they actually enjoy it.
Goodfellas tells the true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a kid who grew up idolizing wiseguys and their larger than life, “respect”-based lifestyle. After getting a job at the local cab stand (a mob front), Hill finds his calling. By his mid 20s, Henry is a central part of operations for this particular syndicate and partners up with Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci). Hilarity, and vulgarity, ensues.
One thing that sets Goodfellas apart from most other mafia movies, as seen in the “Funny how?” clip, is that it portrays everyone involved as one kind of psychopath or another.
While Pesci is clearly the craziest and most violent in that scene, his colleagues never think that he’s gone too far, even when he assaults someone with a glass bottle. The supposedly level-headed characters are still complete sociopaths by most standards, but the constant oneupmanship of gangster capitalism means that you have to out-crazy your opponents. This is not a world of honor, vendettas and class; these guys demand fear, hold petty grudges and have the tackiest taste imaginable. When Michael Corleone says “It’s not personal, it’s only business,” he’s not just using it as a cover. He may understand the irony and the hypocrisy, but he truly believes it. With these wiseguys, “business” is just what they tell their girlfriends and the police, but in reality it is 100% personal to them.
Tell me, does this look like “business” to you?
The psychopathic gangster is nothing new--the Corleones had Sonny, Al Capone had his baseball bat -- but Goodfellas suggests that everybody in the organization is motivated by self-aggrandizement, that you can’t function unless you actually take pleasure in the brutality of it. The Shakespearean struggles of tragic heroes with moral dilemmas is replaced with who-can-whack-who-first mania. Looking at somebody wrong will get you pistol-whipped. Copping an attitude at the wrong time can get you killed. Even when Pesci’s character goes too far in his brutality, it’s not usually much more than an annoyance to those around him. Just like Watchmen took a critical look at what kind of crazy, pathological person would become a superhero, Goodfellas shows what exactly it takes to become, and then thrive, as a real gangster, and it ain’t “business.”
Lightning Never Strikes Twice
I tend to have a problem with excessive narration in movies -- it gets really boring, like you’re being told a story instead of shown one -- but it couldn’t be more perfect for the way Goodfellas is paced. Every actor is larger than life without overacting, the direction and writing are top-notch and by the end of the film you feel energized by the 160 minute-30 year saga. Ray Liotta plays Hill as the perfect combination of explosive and distant, like he’s just as likely to cook you dinner as whack you, and it’s a pity that it didn’t make him a bigger star. But there’s no question that this movie belongs to Joe Pesci, who manages to be hilarious, terrifying and engrossing at all times.
As much as I love Goodfellas and always have, I must say that it loses a bit of its luster in light of Casino.
Casino was Scorsese and writer Nichals Pileggi‘s attempt at recreating the magic they had with Goodfellas. It’s told in such a similar style that it feels like a sequel, with tight closeups of tense conversations, heightened language, multiple narrators and distracting camera work. It’s even based on a true story like Goodfellas, just a much less interesting one. While Casino is by no means a bad movie, with what may well be an even more hilariously vulgar Pesci, it feels more like a cash-in than an honest telling of an interesting story. Watch this clip and tell me that you wouldn’t rather just watch Goodfellas again:
Comments: AFI #95 Pulp Fiction was my favorite movie from age 11-14, and Goodfellas took over from age 15-19. I guess I have a soft spot for foul mouthed Best Picture losers from the 90s.
Deserves to be in Top 100: A classic of late 20th Century cinema and one of the best, most original gangster films ever made. With The Godfather in the Top 10, Goodfellas feels right at home near the bottom of the list as a counterweight.
Inspired: The Sopranos.
Next Week: #93 The Apartment.
Last Week: #95 Pulp Fiction.
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