GoodFellas movie review: king of the hill

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This is the best mob movie ever made. And this is why: It seduces you the way that the life seduces its anti-hero, Henry Hill. It draws you in with the glamour and excitement of crime and a power that makes you untouchable, and just when it has you in its grip, it turns around and shows you how illusory it all is. But by then, like Henry, you’re in too deep to get out.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” So says Henry Hill (Ray Liotta: Cop Land) as GoodFellas opens, one of many quotable lines in this brilliant film. As a teenager in Brooklyn in the 50s, Henry finagles a job as an errand boy for local boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino: Bulworth, Romeo + Juliet) and becomes an instant favorite among Paulie’s guys — Henry is smart, and he instinctively knows the rules of the game, like Don’t rat on your friends. Soon he’s hanging with the explosively volatile Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci: Raging Bull, Home Alone) and the smoothly vicious Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro: Wag the Dog, The Deer Hunter) — as a trio, they’re unstoppable hijackers of anything that will sell, from cigarettes to lobsters, and of plain old cold hard cash as well.

Henry narrates much of the film, breathlessly, in awe of the things he gets away with (Liotta has yet to equal this incredible early performance) and explaining, in the simplest terms possible, the appeal of the mob: “I was a part of something.” GoodFellas has been criticized for its sympathetic portrayal of violent criminals, but Hollywood is hardly responsible for the allure of the mafia, and GoodFellas ultimately demonstrates, better than any other movie on the subject, how fleeting the charm is. Voiceovers from Henry’s girlfriend and later wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), spell out why some women are turned on by savagely jealous men, as all mobsters seem to be, but she also takes us through the disenchantment, as she tries to fool herself into thinking that what her husband does for a living is merely “enterprising” and not criminal. And her dismay at the other mob wives — their cheap clothes, tawdry makeup, and contempt for their own children — is compelling testimony for the emptiness of a brutal life on the fringes of society. For every blackly funny introduction to mobsters with names like Fat Andy, Freddie No Nose, and Jimmy Two Times, there hovers over the film the specter of loyalty that is retracted without warning; for every wad of tax-free cash Henry and his friends pull in, there lurks paranoia and mistrust. This is not a positive portrayal of the mob — it’s a deconstruction of why it appears so inviting, and why it actually isn’t.

GoodFellas is one of my very favorite movies, partly for the ingenuity of director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver). The famous Copa scene is simply breathtaking to watch: In one long, uncut take, the camera follows Henry and Karen on a stroll from a city sidewalk in the back door of the nightclub Copacabana, through corridors and kitchens and into the jam-packed main room, where a waiter carries in a table for them and places it right in front of the stage; Henry greets the other mob guys already there, he and Karen take their seats, a mobster sends over a bottle for them, and then Henny Youngman takes the stage and begins his show. And only then does Scorsese finally cut. Wow. Scorsese uses quick, jerky zooms into faces to signal an almost telepathic communication between characters, but my favorite scene in the movie is just the opposite. The camera pushes slowly in on Jimmy as he watches, with a shrewd eye, a coconspirator in a recent heist who’s being a pain in the ass. With just a twitch of his eyebrow to Tommy, offscreen, that’s it: the poor sucker has been condemned to death.

DeNiro’s understated performance is one of his best — that scene gives me chills — and so is Pesci’s, one of funny-scary intensity. And the recently elevated to godhood Illeana Douglas (Happy, Texas, Stir of Echoes) and Samuel L. Jackson (Shaft, The Phantom Menace) are here in small roles. Between the constant Italian food — cheese! wine! pasta! bread! — and the appearance of future Sopranos Bracco (Tony’s shrink Dr. Melfi) and Michael Imperioli (Tony’s nephew Christopher; his Spider suffers a cruel fate here), GoodFellas is catnip for mob-movie fans… even if in the end it wants to disillusion us.

AFI 100: #92
unforgettable movie moment:

Henry’s offhand remark about what a funny guy Tommy is appears to rile Tommy’s wicked temper: “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you?”

previous AFI 100 film:
91: Sophie’s Choice
next AFI 100 film:
93: The French Connection

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