April 24, 2024

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AFI Challenge Countdown #94: Goodfellas

Martin Scorsese's work makes its first appearance in the countdown with one of Watson's favorite films, the based-on-a-true-story mob drama Goodfellas.

I went to a Catholic high school, and a lot of my friends and classmates of Italian descent talked with awe and wonder about being in the mafia when they grew up.  I think much of that desire came from The Godfather and today’s entry, Goodfellas, a pair of films that somehow make mob life look simultaneously glamorous and horrifying.

Quite frankly, I don’t see why this movie would make anyone want to be a gangster, but that’s me.

I talked before about Pulp Fiction being a pop culture phenomena, but how weird is it that Goodfellas inspired a reoccurring segment on a kid’s cartoon show?

To be fair, these characters also parodied Raging Bull and Taxi Driver...you know, good kids movies.

But let’s face it:  Goodfellas is a modern, stone-cold classic.  I know Watson refers to Steven Spielberg as the greatest director ever, but I’m inclined to think Martin Scorsese might be better.  Maybe Spielberg has made more all-time classics, but I’ll stack Scorsese’s best against Spielberg’s any day of the week and feel confident that the quality of the former’s work is just better.  Spielberg may have more classics under his belt, but I personally think Scorsese’s are just better.

I also find that when dealing with students telling me how great The Wolf of Wall Street is, I advise them to seek out Goodfellas since it is essentially the same movie with the earlier one as the superior film.

Goodfellas is the true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a kid who, as far back as he could remember, always wanted to be a gangster.  He goes to work for local mob boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and comes to associate with local legend James “Jimmy the Gent” Conway (Robert DeNiro) and the short firebrand Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).  Don’t tell Tommy he’s funny.

Trivia fact:  the same year Goodfellas came out, Pesci played another volatile criminal type in Home Alone.  He was the face of evil in 1990.

There’s a lot to say about Goodfellas beyond the fact it seems like half the cast of The Sopranos shows up somewhere in this one, and not just the obvious ones with big speaking parts like Lorraine Bracco.  There are times when it is easy to see the appeal to being a gangster.  Getting the best tables at a restaurant, never having much trouble with the law, and even when you do, getting by just fine in prison.  Just follow the two rules of never ratting out your friends and keeping your mouth shut even when you do get in trouble and everything is fine.  Have a wife, have some kids, have a girlfriend on the side, and all the money you can ask for.

But there’s a cost, and it comes in blood.  When the mob wants something, the only way to get it is through violence and intimidation.  Murder is a fact of life for these guys, and after a while, they get used to it and it isn’t even a big deal.  There’s the justifications they make, suggesting that they’re just protecting themselves or just taking what they had the nerve to grab which law-abiding schmucks wouldn’t dare to do.

And there isn’t much more volatile than Pesci’s Tommy.  This is a guy who will fly off the handle and murder someone at the drop of a hat,   The murder that ends up getting him killed is a prime example of the mundane mixing with the violent, as Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry take a car with a presumed corpse in the trunk to DeVito’s house and have a nice sit-down chat with Tommy’s elderly mother, as played by Scorsese’s own mother.

Heck, that general blase attitude towards violence is probably why Henry doesn’t bat and eyelash when he wakes up to see his furious wife Karen (Bracco) pointing a gun directly at his face.  Why is she mad?  He’s been cheating on her.  He gets out of it and then she apologizes to him.

In the end, the movie shifts and becomes something else.  There isn’t much of a story if Henry doesn’t fall (since the book it’s based on came from the real Henry Hill’s eventual trip to the Witness Protection Program), and Henry’s fall makes the whole thing into a completely different movie as the Hills both find themselves experiencing extreme paranoia since Henry started sampling the drugs he was selling on the side against Paulie’s wishes, and that’s what eventually caught up to him.

The ending leads to a moment where Henry, banished far from his home turf, where he can’t even get a good pasta meal, seems to be asking for pity about where he came from.  Can we possibly feel bad for a criminal who may have lost all that he loved but still stayed a free man?  I’d say not, but as I said at the start, I knew plenty of people who said they would have gone for it.

NEXT UP:  There haven’t been too many comedies that have managed to win the Best Picture Oscar, but in 1960, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment managed.