Goodfellas is arguably Scorsese’s best and most popular film. For some reason, it didn’t really connect with me when I first saw it a couple years ago. While I did buy into it a lot more this second time around, it still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film. Just some aspects of it don’t work for me I guess. Not to mention that there seems to be a lot of pressure to like this one whereas with lesser known Scorsese pictures one does not have to deal with that.
Though it’s been hard for me to figure out exactly why I don’t like this film as much as most people, I think it makes a lot more sense if I compare it to some other films. One being Scorsese’s later film with the same writer, Casino. That film stars De Niro and Pesci as well, but no Liotta. Liotta does a great job here, but the fact still remains that I’d take De Niro and Pesci front and center any day. I also think Sam’s relationship with his wife in that film is more interesting than Henry’s and Karen’s here. The other film I would compare it to is The Godfather, which to me is the best mafia movie ever made. It is a more idealized look at organized crime, and while it’s probably not as realistic that’s exactly what I like about it. The whole film is just so classy! Now, just because I like these other mafia movies better, does that mean I don’t like Goodfellas? No, absolutely not. There are just aspects of those films that Goodfellas doesn’t have and I’m just trying to defend myself and get this out of my system before the rest of the review.
Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a kid from Brooklyn who wants to be a gangster. He thinks it will solve all of his problems, and for a while, it does. The mob takes care of everything; he doesn’t have to go to school, he doesn’t have to pay taxes, he doesn’t have to wait in line or any of that nonsense that regular people have to deal with. It’s great. He has friends, he’s accepted and respected, and there seems to be nothing stopping him. As he climbs closer and closer to the top (he can’t get all the way to the top because he’s only half Italian), things get more and more exciting. It is true that one gets caught up in all of the excitement of Henry’s advancement, I’ll admit that.
Towards the beginning of the film, when Henry is still relatively young, he gets pinched. He doesn’t say anything and does his time like he’s supposed to. He thinks everyone’s going to be mad at him because he got caught, but this is not the case. One of his friends, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), imparts a life lesson: “Never rat on your friends and always keep you mouth shut.” I cannot over stress the importance of this lesson! It’s supposed to be something they all live by and should never, never go against.
All throughout the film, the attraction of being a gangster is at the forefront. It not only draws in Henry from a young age, but also Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a woman he goes out with that doesn’t initially like him. She watches him giving out money and goes with him to exclusive places. She thinks she’s found Somebody, when before he was just another guy. She looks at the gangsters’ stealing and murdering as “enterprising,” and in a way she has a point. And who really cares if you’re not getting caught and getting new clothes and going on nice vacations all the time.
Though material comfort is nice, what seems nicer to me is that all of these guys are like family. There’s a great scene when Tommy (Joe Pesci), Jimmy, and Henry all stop off at Tommy’s mom’s (Catherine Scorsese) house in the middle of the night. It’s a really cute scene, because they’re all tough mobsters and everything but they’re still being all nice and shy in front of Tommy’s mom. She cooks them a meal in the middle of the night, too, and shows them a painting she did. It’s the cutest thing; I’m not even kidding. Of course, they are still mobsters so they have a dead guy who’s not really dead in the trunk of their car, but still. It’s an adorable scene.
This is a constant throughout the film. There’s a happy go-lucky sort of feeling on the surface, but at any moment the dark undercurrent of gangster violence is threatening to take over. This is especially evident in Tommy, who is Joe Pesci’s normal explosive character. You never really now when he’s going to laugh an perceived insult off or shoot the guy who said it. Tommy is a very effective demonstration of the volatility of the business they’re in. He’s definitely the most colorful character in the film and has a lot of fun, but other times he definitely goes to far. Like he when he kills a guy he’s not supposed to kill, or when he shoots a kid who was just standing up for himself.
Like in The Godfather, the problems come with drugs. Drugs are a bad business, one should never get mixed up in it. After Henry gets out of prison the second time, he gets into the drugs even after Paulie (the boss, played by Paul Sorvino) tells him not to. You know that’s not going to be good. Thus we have the classic fall from glory that happens in a lot of Scorsese films. And let me tell you, here things get pretty bad. “If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.” This is evident in a diner scene where Henry realizes his friends all think he’s a rat. The scene features a really slow and very subtle reverse tracking shot that underlines his revelation.
Henry decides to save himself. He rats on his friends and doesn’t keep his mouth shut, turning on the whole organization and spending the rest of his life in witness protection. All of the bonds between these guys get broken down throughout the film, and this is the final straw. This is really the main reason I don’t like this film as much as most people; Henry rats on his friends and doesn’t keep his mouth shut. He’s really not a very good gangster, and the whole thing seems very hollow at the end. If the mob was really as powerful as Henry thinks it is as a kid, he wouldn’t be alive at the end, plain and simple. The disillusionment in this film is pretty painful for me.
Even though I have some problems with this film; that’s not because the film is bad. I got involved enough in the story to have these problems, and that’s always worth something. At the end of the day I do like the film, and I liked it a lot more the second time around than I did the first. Goodfellas is a really good look inside the mob; it may not be as classy as The Godfather but is probably more realistic and definitely deserves to mentioned alongside it.
“Never rat on your friends and always keep you mouth shut.”
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