“But, I’m funny how? Funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh?”
– Tommy DeVito
I know Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas remains something of a sacred cow even among those not completely enamored with Scorsese, so some remarks are needed to save me from the inevitable pitchforks. Like many classics it seems invincible, and like some unkillable zombie, it is critic-proof. Let me concede from the start, there is a lot to admire in parts of the film. But as a cohesive piece, Goodfellas has fatal problems.
Based on the true-life best seller “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi, ostensibly, the film is about the rise and fall of Henry Hill and his friends. Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, and Robert De Niro play a very violent set. Liotta as Hill, De Niro as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, Pesci as Tommy DeVito, and Bracco as Hill’s wife, Karen, travel from the 1960s to the 1980s as mobsters seemingly living it up until the very end. Although the script tries, the characters are rather hard to differentiate except in brutal, blunt terms. Jimmy, Henry, and Tommy form a vicious triad, but Jimmy and Henry are only mildly psychopathic, Tommy, it turns out, is a genuinely crazed killer. And even Karen, who begins as an innocent, soon becomes adept at lying and killing, too.
A great film need not be about great or even good people, but Goodfellas almost perversely chokes on filling itself with nothing pretty unlikable characters. That’s an issue of content. In terms of style, even bigger problems emerge. This isn’t the place for radical revisionism of all Scorsese. For good or ill, Scorsese has tried for years to come to grips with the problems and opportunities postmodernism opens up for cinema. It’s hard to understand The King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), and Shutter Island (2010) unless one understands Scorsese’s long-time and conflicted attempt to merge Hollywood conventions to more post-modern tactics and messages. One should applaud Scorsese for at least trying to infuse his films with hefty intellectualism, but here we are judging the outcome.
Probably the most devastating complaint – because it’s true – is Scorsese is simply copying himself. Scorsese has treaded on this territory before with Mean Streets (1973), and even further back than that in Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967). There his Italian Catholic background and the revolutions of the 1960s collide. Despite the focus on violence and the mob, being an Italian Catholic or rather the sense of losing the identity of being Italian Catholic in post-Sixties America is the heart and soul of Goodfellas. Ironically, this puts him closer to Spike Lee and Do the Right Thing in providing a kind of cultural and political anthropology of our times, but there is a gap between the attempt and the execution.
As producer, screenwriter, and director, Scorsese has uneven gifts he brings to bear. Unlike many director he does have a good basic control of writing. Indeed many people don’t seem to get that much of the film is a comedy! The linguistic wordplay is very cleverly deployed throughout the film. For instance, Hill assures us there are among goodfellas no “arguments or curses like in the movies”! This can only be meant ironically. (The film is on record as one of a handful films containing the most amount of curses ever put to film.)
Another strong point is the deft handling of the film’s intertextuality. Much of the film is about the movies, and not only gangster films either. This meta-fictional obsession is barely hidden in much of the dialogue. “We were treated like movie stars with muscle.”
“Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for bad guys in the movies.” And so on and so on.
In one scene, Tommy talks about “riding shotgun.” He then says it’s back to the hideout to “split up the loot, you sidewinder,” as he shoots a gun into the air as if parodying a Western (or a Disney Western cartoon). Henry looks nearly vampirish towards the end. And the boys joke – as they bury a body – “Hey, what do you like, the leg or the wing, Henry?” It’s even said this against a background of red mist as if they were devils. And before Tommy kills Spider, Spider notes (prophetically): “Why don’t you go fuck yourself.” And indeed by killing him, Tommy does just that!
The parodying of these various genres (and the film itself) is often effective and very funny. The writing is often if morbidly funny. Unfortunately, it’s not funny enough and often the double entendres are simply too silly and can’t stand up to scrutiny. Admittedly, the gags are much better than those of The Freshman, with Brando parodying his own portrayal of Vito Corleone, but still far less the flawless gem many critics and fans have come to believe. In fact, it seems most fans can’t even sense that the film is a black comedy in disguise.
Such fragmentation isn’t necessarily bad. If there are strong enough themes, a film can be excused for many things, but the film lacks any grand message or purpose. Indeed, in terms of sheer “plot,” it’s hard to grasp or locate what it is exactly. Without that, one merely gets a rather condensed set of chapters of violent bad guys stealing and killing. As far as a story goes, the film remains an enigma. From what I can tell, the death of Billy Batts acts as the fulcrum for the film acting as both the actual start of the film and providing a “logic” for all that follows after. (Not that I’ll argue for those nominating the Lufthansa heist as basically the movie in a nutshell.)
By the 1980s, Henry is ready to be taken down as the violence from that act works its way through the mob forcing him to become a “rat.” The tiny inner-life of this small community and its extreme isolation is fascinating, but only up to a point. The dilemma of maintaining a mainstream interest in one’s film while being able to express an auteurist sensibility remains an unbreakable paradox. No one can fairly blame the film for falling short in this regard. All commercial films are compromised, and a critic has to fairly take this into account. The problem is Scorsese (like Lee) succumbs back onto reliable but, ultimately, conservative bag of tricks too early into the film robbing it of a lot of potential potency.
If anything the extreme violence and language is much more implied than actually used and this may account for the popularity of the film. It certainly presents itself like an extreme film. The problem isn’t just that most of the time is filled up on a series of (mindless) murders. The real problem is that very early on, the film telegraphs that this murderous tribal-like ethos can only lead to a self-destructive spiral of violence, drugs, and backstabbing. If this is the case, any dramatic tensions ceases. It simply becomes a matter of time before the entire film explodes and everything collapses. Presumably, Scorsese believed the mood and tone through the sets and music are sufficient to establish enough of a structure for the film and can therefore act to push the basic message of the film forward.
Here, one can genuinely disagree. Many apparently think the mood of the film is enough.
I find much of the philosophy being put forth only mildly interesting. Early on, a young Hill is told: “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” It appears that the gang adheres to a code of honor. But in a short amount of time, it becomes obvious as the climax with the death of Joe Pesci shows, the ethics of the mob is a mere thin tissue used to enforce conformity.
THE BLUE BOYS
As Hill complains in the conclusion: “Thirty-two hundred dollars for a lifetime. It wasn’t even enough to pay for the coffin.” Like all the transactions in the film, in the end, only money matters. Although – and this is the film’s major problem – there’s little doubt that the film condemns the mob, one can’t help but feel Scorsese is hedging his bets. On the plus side, the film has some interesting use of color that also informed Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. In Goodfellas, blue is used again and again in scene after scene to signify dread and death in a scary but haunting manner. There are also some neat “inter-textual” tricks as when Scorsese’s real mother (Tommy’s fictional mother) tells the trio a parable about a painting; a reference to the film itself as a cautionary parable.
Yet again, beyond a certain point, these tricks become tiresome. The great music and performances manage to obscure this basic fact. Many fans no doubt truly believe Scorsese due to his so-called mob trilogy (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino) is indicative of his larger concerns and I maybe nitpicking in the wrong areas. As Kundun demonstrates, these heady metaphysical jaunts are no accident and do define much of Scorsese’s canon. Alas, I simply don’t think the philosophy is as well crafted as some have believed or cohesive enough to be truly effective.
To be sure, much of the blame does rest on Hollywood and the bizarre logic of financing films. Scorsese also has had a string of bad luck concerning poor box office limiting him severely. Goodfellas isn’t just a film about cheap bad guys, it looks cheap and with good reason. (I’ll even argue that the long shot in the Copa is more gaudy than anything else.)
Would Scorsese or the audience have been better served if he had hefty Spielberg-size budgets to play with? I’m a bit skeptical. The issue is less the commercialism in his films than their confusion.
On the one hand, Hill is nominated as a basically decent guy if with bad values. But the film teeters back and forth between seeing him as a flawed man or just plain evil. The film goes conjures up the romanticism of the 1960s via The Ronettes, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and other hits of the period, and then violently dismisses all this nostalgia as mostly illusory lies. It’s unclear how to react to the film. Sometimes this postmodern pastiche produces some interesting linguistic detours. The vocabulary of the mob itself degenerates on itself because even though “rats” are constantly denigrated by the mob but the mob itself is a rat, parasitic on the lifeblood of a larger animal, unable to sustain itself.
This inversion of normal ethics (and normal language) with insults (“ … they were suckers. They had no balls,”) signifies the seduction Scorsese is outlining and attacking. People are lured in by the prospect of a glamorous life, but the life turns out to be a death trap. As Hill admits to the audience – in another bit of ironic comedy – “Shooting people was a normal thing. It was no big deal.” Turning an abnormal thing (killing) into a norm ultimately destroys the entire operation. So, the film is rather jaded in its lessons, those stepping outside the law reap a heavy world-wind.
Despite all these obvious signals, somehow the film never truly coheres, and we’re left with a fragmented argument. Another early voiceover by Hill tries to rationalize the system. He, Jimmy, and Tommy are trying to simply provide… “protection from other guys looking to rip them off. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s what the FBI could never understand. That what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can’t go to the cops. That’s it. That’s all it is. They’re like the police department for wiseguys.”
This leads to a potent paradox. If the wiseguys are just “cops,” then what are the “cops”? Since an early scene reveals the FBI and police to be corrupt, this turns the film into a really, really long documentary on a bunch of corrupt figures, legally or illegally authorized to kill and extort.
In better hands, this might have turned into genuine drama. Instead one gets a rather disjointed set of set pieces and nicely structured acts – in isolation. Ironically, this actually makes the use of music in various montages more effective. I certainly found the “Layla” montage unforgettable (though people forget “Layla” was used when Tommy was being “made”); the Cream segment is also very powerful with DeNiro’s body movements perfectly pitched.
The closest thing I could put together as a cohesive theology is that those committing violence suffer from it. One may agree or disagree with this mechanic theology, the problem is that it aesthetically doesn’t mesh well with the film. The epiphany (such as it is) given by Hill is a jaded admission at the end that he’s “an average nobody” and forced “to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Those who sin pay the price for their sins.
A nice sermon and lesson but aside from being factually problematic – sometimes the bad guys do win – the issue becomes one of so what?? Bad guys paying a price for their sins might appear to be solid storytelling, but outside of fables, this rather simplistic set-up isn’t very satisfactory on a film that is structured like a documentary. Like King, this film is really a sustained satire on fame and celebrity, except the pretty people are pretty ugly and their “celebrity” is even more mysterious than those currently tagged as celebs. And one has to put aside the problems of a(nother) Hollywood film attacking Hollywoodism.
CONCLUSION: IN SEARCH OF SUBSTANCE AND STYLE
Goodfellas is a very good film on first inspection. Unless one is just drawn to violence – an admittedly large part of the audience – it’s hard to understand what there is to sustain one’s interest. Perhaps many people really do find this mob mythology fascinating. If the point of the film is to de-mythologize, this leads a to conundrum.
Needless to say when so many people misread a film, some blame must go to the director for this confusion. Not that the film entirely fails. The analogy between the mob and corporations becomes unmistakable by the 1980s, and this is sustained throughout much of the film. Unfortunately, other films had beaten this particular theme to death by the time Goodfellas was released.
Of course, to condemn Scorsese without offering an alternative seems unfair. Due to constraints of space, one has to say, Oliver Stone, a past Scorsese, long surpassed him as has Quentin Tarantino in combining style to story. To be sure, not every film should be or can be a JFK a la Stone. There should be a middle class of entertaining but artistic films. Goodfellas isn’t it by a long shot. It has a lot of precious moments, but it is no masterpiece. It still though remains a decent film and one worth mulling over. Though perhaps more for its potential and the actual finished product.