Goodfellas

Time for another review from The Movie Critic: Book One, my unpublished manuscript of film assessments put together between June 1992 and March 1993.  Number nineteen in the original draft was Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece about Henry Hill, the real-life American gangster who risked his enrolment in The Witness Protection Program to see his biography translated for the big screen.  (It didn’t help matters that he also kept committing crimes under his new identity.)  Since reemerging as himself, his reputation, never great to begin with, has plumetted even further, thanks to his frequent, drunken appearances on The Howard Stern Show. 

 
I’ve screened Goodfellas twice on full screen tape in both 1991 and 1992.  The original version of this review was written after the second screening.  Because of its sloppy nature, however, it’s been extensively revised.  The first two sentences have been relocated to the ninth paragraph where they’ve been slightly tweaked.  The new beginning is the fifth sentence which is exactly the same here except for one word that proved unnecessary.  Despite efforts to maintain a fair number of the original lines, this new version of my review, while maintaining my basic, original sentiment, is tighter and less rambling.  Without a doubt, it’s a major improvement over the initial draft.  As usual, quite a few lines have been somewhat reworked, completely rewritten, slightly tweaked and dropped altogether.  Some more thoughts have been added to further flesh out the piece.
 
The recent airing of the film on MuchMoreMusic brought something new to my attention.  For years, I had no idea that Michael Imperioli (hot tempered Christopher from The Sopranos) played Spider, the waiter who makes a fateful mistake in one of the film’s most shocking scenes. 
 
Nearly 20 years old, Goodfellas remains one of the best loved and most quotable films in movie history.  As of this writing, it’s ranked #15 on The Internet Movie Database’s list of the Top 250 greatest all-time titles. 
 
 
 
 Goodfellas
 Restricted
 146 minutes, 1990
Starring:
Ray Liotta–Henry Hill
Robert DeNiro–Jimmy "The Gent" Conway
Joe Pesci–Tommy DeVito
Paul Sorvino–Paulie Cicero
Lorraine Bracco–Karen Hill
Catherine Scorsese–Mrs. DeVito (Tommy’s Mom)
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
Music by Various Artists
Directed by Martin Scorsese
 
Ever since he was thirteen years old, Henry Hill wanted to join the mafia.  His reasoning could not be any clearer.  They live the good life.  They get to party all night, park their cars wherever they want, have sex with all the good-looking women and never get in trouble with the police.  All of this fascinated young Henry to the point where he had to find out for himself what he was missing.
 
In Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s incredibly entertaining portrait of the real-life Hill, we witness fascinating highlights of some four decades of his life.  There’s an early scene where he ventures into a mob hangout in order to secure a part-time job.  His chutzpah convinces these wiseguys to give him a shot.  He starts off making small deliveries and parking cars.  Nothing special but even aspiring gangsters start at the bottom.  Soon, he gets promoted to selling stolen cigarettes.
 
But then, his Irish father learns that he’s been cutting classes for over two months.  One severe beltwhipping later (perhaps the most brutal one ever depicted in the movies), a black-eyed Henry tells his boss, Tuddy (Frank DiLeo), that he’s out for good.  This depressing news is deemed unacceptable.  Tuddy and a couple of cronies decide to visit the post office to straighten the whole matter out.  When Henry points out the innocent mailman who delivered the message that sent his father into a volcanic rage, Tuddy’s two goons basically kidnap him.  One brutal beating later, Henry starts receiving his mail at the hangout.
 
While his truancy problem goes away quietly, he is inevitably busted for selling those stolen cigarettes.  During his trial, Henry says nothing and receives no punishment.  No one is more pleased with the outcome than Jimmy "The Gent" Conway (Robert DeNiro) who gives the half-Irish, half-Sicilian upstart one of the most memorable pieces of advice in movie history:  "Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.".  More "family" members give him a warm reception outside the courthouse.
 
Almost a decade later, it’s 1963 and Henry is now a 21-year-old man played brilliantly by Ray Liotta.  Tommy DeVito (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Joe Pesci) and Conway collaborate with him on numerous scams and illegal business ventures.  They do well, the money starts rolling in and their boss, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) is pleased.
 
Tommy is one scary dude, trigger happy to the point of tragedy.  Hypersensitive to ballbusting, he’s not always aware when people are giving him the gears.  His misunderstanding of these moments lead to some instantaneously poor decisions.  He says "fuck" and its variations more often than any other character in the movie.  It’s so natural for him to do this you’re amazed that he never realizes how much of a filthy mouth he really has.  Practically every character in Goodfellas curses but Tommy is in a class all by himself.
 
Avoiding long-term relationships like the plague, he has perfected the art of the one-night stand, banging a different woman every night and not caring in the slightest if they get hurt when he stops talking to them.  His latest temporary girlfriend is Jewish but, for some strange reason, is prejudiced against Italian men.  Despite being upset about this, ultimately, Tommy doesn’t care.  He still wants to have sex with her.  Incredibly, she agrees to go out with him but only if another couple joins them.  So Tommy sets up Henry with Karen (Best Supporting Actress nominee Lorraine Bracco), his girlfriend’s best friend who is also Semitic. 
 
The date is a disaster.  While Tommy and his future conquest are getting along fine, Karen and Henry don’t appear to be connecting.  She tries to talk to him but he doesn’t want anything to do with her.  The second date is even worse.  Karen gets stood up which makes her cry.  Unconvinced by Tommy’s explanation for his partner’s conspicious absence, she tracks him down that same night.  They have an argument and discover that there might something between them after all.  After their rough start, they get serious and eventually marry.  But the relationship returns to rockier terrain.
 
Here is another brilliant motion picture from the best director working in Hollywood today.  Martin Scorsese’s movies are often thought provoking and almost always entertaining, plus they usually provide interesting insight into Italian-American life.  Goodfellas is no exception.
 
From the screenplay to the cinematography to the acting to the music to the editing to the directing, the film never misses a beat.  Scorsese and journalist Nicholas Pileggi have done a phenomenal job adapting the latter’s true crime book into a terrific screenplay that offers disturbing emotional truths for nearly two and a half hours.  The unrelenting portrait of sudden, unspeakable violence; the immense difficulty of breaking one’s ties to the mob; the love; the despair; the tragedy; the betrayals; the realism; all compelling reasons to treasure this movie.
 
The performances are first-rate all across the board.  Robert DeNiro is excellent.  Ray Liotta (who does a wonderful job co-narrating Henry Hill’s story along with the very effective Lorraine Bracco) is perfectly cast.  Joe Pesci is alternately funny and terrifying as the loose cannon Tommy DeVito, the psychotic, thin-skinned womanizer with a sick sense of humour.  The infamous scene involving a young bartender perfectly exemplifies his unpredictable, needlessly destructive temperment. 
 
As Henry’s life devolves into a paranoid quicksand of addiction, Bracco is quite good playing his increasingly desperate, long despairing wife trying in vain to cope with an unbearable reality about to shatter "the good life" they’ve lived for so many years.  For all her devotion to Henry, she’s not afraid to stand up for herself like the shocking scene where she straddles her sleeping husband pointing a gun right at his head.  If that doesn’t explain the complex nature of their relationship, nothing will.
 
Goodfellas is easily one of the most gripping and believable portraits of American mob life ever committed to the screen.  It is rightly played out on an epic level and deserved all of its Academy Award nominations.  Without question, this is a movie viewing experience to remember.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 13, 2009
1:52 a.m.
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Published in: on August 13, 2009 at 1:52 am  Leave a Comment  

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