GoodFellas – strange title for a movie, don’t you think? There’s a capital G and a capital F in there, intercapped as one word. One imagines that Martin Scorsese decided to make not just a film but a global conglomerate too, like FedEx or PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The corporate comparison seems appropriate, because no movie looks at the mob as a business the way GoodFellas does. Sure, the first two Godfather films give us a sophisticated cross-section of the architecture of mob power, and the best parts of New Jack City track the drug trade up and down the class ladder. But GoodFellas is where we get learn exactly where the money goes, and precisely how it compromises, corrodes, and eventually collapses family and friendship. A multi-generational tale of bad money, it is the defining American movie of the 1990s.
Ray Liotta is remarkably assured, funny, and frightening as Henry Hill, who becomes a part of the Outfit’s inner circle in tacky New Jersey. (One of the most appealing parts of the film is how it tracks the sub-Woolworth’s notions of home design through the decades, from the right-angled ‘50s to the black-tiled ‘80s.) The top dog is Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), and Hill’s mentor is Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro). But the tribe’s defining character for Hill — and us — is Tommy De Vito, played with irrepressible brilliance by Joe Pesci. Genuinely funny and kind-hearted but always this close to snapping completely, he underscores the tension Hill feels between loving a second family but knowing it’s made up of cold-blooded killers.
And, metaphors aside, Pesci gets some great, eminently quotable lines: “I’m funny how? Funny like a clown?” Or, better still, as he exhumes the chopped-up, rotting body from an old hit: “Henry, hurry up will you? My mother’s gonna make us some fried peppers and sausage for us. Oh… here’s an arm.” Dialogue, more than cleverly-imagined shots or interesting set design, is what’s made Scorsese one of the best directors of his generation — he has a magnificent ear for the cadence of street talk, and the rhythm of the chatter here is just plain fun to listen to. Young screenwriters are constantly told that voiceovers are crutches, the sign of a weak script, but half of Hill’s lines are in voiceover, brilliant little comments that underscore the mobster code and let the movie jump faster across the years. “Whenever we needed money, we’d rob the airport,” Hill tells us. “To us, it was better than Citibank.” In two sentences, we’ve got the how of mob life, the why of it, and the attitude that drives it.
The plot follows the cocktails-and-pistols rise and cokehead-turning-state’s-evidence fall of Hill. That may not sound particularly surprising, but it’s remarkable how intimately we understand the mobsters’ relationships. It’s almost heartbreaking to see Hill frozen out by Cicero and Conway towards the end, because it exposes how false those friendships were. And interestingly, we hear more from women than we do in other mob flicks. As Henry’s wife Karen, Lorraine Bracco is grating, but on purpose. All the mob wives we meet are grating, because their need for domesticity is smashed by the lives their husbands lead; when Bracco’s good, especially towards the end, she shows the emotional toll of making yourself ignore the harm your loved one’s doing.
“I’m an average nobody,” laments Hill at the very end of the film. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” By “like a schnook,” he means what most people call the American Dream: a spouse, a house, some kids, maybe a dog. And that cuts to the heart of what we love so much about mob films. They tell us that there’s another world out there, which can give us that Dream, but with a lot more fun and excitement in it. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we get to have it both ways. But how much of our consciences, GoodFellas asks, are we willing to sacrifice to make it happen?