For as far back as I can remember, when you spoke of the American gangster film genre, there was The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) , then there was everything else.
Time passed. Contenders to the throne arose, and were beaten back just as quickly. It seemed to many that Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece would reign ad infinitum. Coppola himself, apparently in his boredom, even attempted to add to his legacy with a third Godfather movie. But we were all of us deceived…
For deep down in the pits of Mt. Doom, where only orcs and massive eyebrows could survive, a third movie was indeed being forged. But this one was different. This was the brainchild of a wizard known to mere mortals as Martin Scorsese, and into it he poured his genius, his wit, and his coolest of camera effects. He added the talents of one Robert De Niro, in his rawest, most primal form, as yet untouched by the “comedy bug” that would later claim his reputation. Too, a vicious troll known to some as The Pesci, and Ray “this is the pinnacle of my career” Liotta were there. Together they created what turned out to be not a contender to the gangster genre reign, but the contender. It may not be better than the pair of Godfather films, but it in no way is a lesser piece of art.
The “based on real-life” story of GoodFellas follows Liotta’s character, Henry Hill, from a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, through his progression as a young gangster in the Lucchese crime family, and finally as a hardened, coked-out, organized crime veteran with much of his world crumbling around him. Throughout this process Scorsese is the proverbial Elliot, methodically placing Reese’s Pieces of dialogue, violence, sexuality and intrigue in front of his audience, and we are the helpless Extra-Terrestrial taking it in, not knowing where we’ll end up, but loving every minute of it.
Now, what makes this movie so special for me (aside from the gratuitous profanity and Pesci’s off-the-chain personality) is the nuance with which Scorsese lays out every scene. To me, it almost plays like a collection of mini-movies within a movie. In one of my favorite scenes, you have Henry Hill’s future wife (played by Lorraine Bracco of Sopranos fame) describing their courtship, with their first date being an unmitigated disaster, and later, their second date follows them through the bowels of a nightclub, winding through the kitchen into the nightclub itself, Henry talking all the while, and everyone in the background going about their business without a hint of being contrived.
Though profanity is laced throughout the movie, (it at one point held the distinction of the film with the most f-bombs) the dialogue is tremendous. At one point a trucker is being robbed of his semi and trailer. Before taking some identification and handing the trucker back his wallet, De Niro tells him, very matter-of-factly, “You may think you know who we are, but we know who you are.” Then there’s perhaps the most famous scene, Pesci asking Liotta, “What do you mean, I’m funny? What am I a clown, here to amuse you?” You can see Liotta sweating, looking around for someone to rescue him, practically hear his butt cheeks clenching. Even seeing this movie multiple times, knowing it’s coming, I still get nervous when Pesci’s berating him, telling him to explain, “I’m funny how?”
Then there’s the music. You would think that, OK, Scorsese’s a great director, but maybe he’ll miss a beat when it comes to the soundtrack. Wrong! Man, have you not been paying attention? He’s a wizard I tell ya! Nightclub scene described above? “Then he kissed me” by The Crystals. All sorts of dead bodies disposed of in various methods? The closing riffs of “Layla” by Eric Clapton. Henry on a coke bender trying to outrun a seemingly omnipresent helicopter? The Who, The Rolling Stones, George Harrison. Dammit, is there nothing Scorsese doesn’t see through those Coke-bottle glasses?
And then there’s the character development. Somehow, every person on-screen should be there, and none of them are throwaway characters. Pesci’s girlfriend says at one point that he’ll kill her if she even looks at another guy, that’s how jealous he is. The expression on her face tell you that it’s true, and from the film you know that it’s true. If you’re a Sopranos fan, Michael Imperioli plays Spider, and though his scenes are not extensive, they are definitely memorable. And those are the minor, bit players in this opus! You start talking about De Niro as Jimmy Conway and Pesci as Tommy De Vito? Forget about it!
This is, from start to finish, an almost joyful expression of the deviant and dangerous working of criminals in their element, and in their daily lives. Sure there’s death and dismemberment. Yes, there’s infidelity, incarceration, and betrayal. But there’s also jokes, pasta, birthday parties, and the tackiest 80’s living room you’ll ever see. This is a window into organized crime, warts and all, and that’s what makes it a tremendous film.
It is physically, metaphorically, mentally, psychologically, existentially, and literally impossible for me to rate this movie anything but a “one-beer, here’s to you, Scorsese, hail to the victor and please, sir, may I have some more” rating. Go watch this movie. This is what movies are supposed to be.
Take a Drink: whenever Pesci’s telling a joke.
Take a Drink: whenever you see a stack of cash or bag of drugs.
Take a Sip: for every Peter, Paul, and Mary that’s introduced at Henry’s Wedding.
Do a Shot: when Samuel L. Jackson gets the Pesci Alarm Clock.
Do a Shot: when Morrie finally shuts up.
Do a Double Shot: when Joe Pesci realizes he got dressed up for an empty room.