Friday, June 12, 2015
At the Movies: "Goodfellas"
Martin Scorsese, 1990.
imbd score: 8.7 (imdb 250: #17)
(Incidentally -- Male: 8.8; Female: 8.4)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%(!) Fresh
Many, many people think that Goodfellas, a movie about life in the Mafia, is fabulous. Check it out: four stars from Ebert! #17 on the imdb 250! So obviously, it’s not awful. In fact it is well acted, well filmed, and put together with loving attention to historical detail. Unfortunately for me, I mostly just find it kind of tiresome. My loss.
You can find many loving reviews of Goodfellas which dwell on its many virtues. As always, the Ebert review is a great place to start. Since I’m delivering a minority report, for what it’s worth, I will dwell on the flaws here.
First, Goodfellas is so intent on explaining what life in organized crime is like, that it spends much of its running time doing exactly that: it explains. It explains and explains. While scenes from their lives play on the screen, the central character and his wife tell you about their lives in voice-over narration. For me, the effect is a lot like listening to someone chatter while showing you their home movies, which is to say insufferable. The premise, of course, is that because the protagonist’s job is to hurt, frighten, and kill people, his unusual life must therefore be fascinating, but the one doesn’t really follow from the other.
Related to this is the film’s vacillation about whether gang violence is glamorous. On one hand, one of the strongest themes in Goodfellas is the profound banality of Mafia life. For the gangsters, the big payoff for a life of crime turns out to be not all that exciting. They indulge in the predictable pleasures of luxurious interior design, card games, evenings at the club, a cultish devotion to the forms of family life, and bimbos on the side. At the same time, the film wants to explain (again with the explaining!) the excitement and appeal of the criminal lifestyle to the people who live it. You end up listening to the narrator nattering about how great his life is, while you are watching him plod through years of tedium punctured by occasional adrenaline terror. At the end of the movie he will complain that, having left the Mafia, he is now just another “schmuck.” But the truth is, he’s been a schmuck all along.
Goodfellas really wants to wow us with the notion that in addition to their loyalty to their criminal enterprise, Mafia gangsters also had profound loyalties to their family. It fumbles this. The central character, for instance, will eventually have a big day where he is juggling a complicated criminal caper with a big meal he is preparing for his family and his disabled brother. But whereas we spend most of this long movie up close and personal with the gangsters, the disabled brother is essentially just a prop. He is shown briefly in an opening scene, and then trotted back out for a few scenes towards the end to help drive the plot. The children, similarly, are never more than a background presence. Since they are given no identities and no personalities, we are not given any reason to buy into the notion that their father is deeply concerned about them, or for that matter that he knows their names.
There are a couple of moments in Goodfellas where two gangsters are making plans and the action suddenly freezes, while the voiceover announces something along the lines of “that’s when I realized that Guy #1 was going to kill Guy #2!” These episodes sum up why I think Goodfellas falls short of its reputation. They are just a tiny bit insulting both to both the actors, who should be able to convey a moment of realization through, you know, acting, and to those of us watching, who might have been trusted to figure out what was going on without the movie handing us a copy on its own Cliff Notes.
Plot: A talented young man joins the Mafia. For a while, he succeeds through the requisite blend of enterprise, tact, and sociopathy. Then he becomes increasingly self-destructive, until the wheels come off. (The most interesting question of Goodfellas, in my book, is whether our hero ever realizes that he is the chief architect of all his own bad luck.)
Visuals: Gorgeously awful, with the worst excesses of mid-century and 1970s interior design captured and exaggerated in color film formats that mimic those of their periods. There are some terrific technical shots, including a roundabout trip to the floor of a nightclub through a service entrance and what seems like miles of corridors and kitchens. An unfortunate detail: Oddly gimcrack opening titles get things off on the wrong foot.
Dialog: Pretty good. I wish there had been more dialog, because that would mean there was less narration. There is some particularly strong writing for the character of Tommy DeVito, a sociopath’s sociopath played with electric verve by Joe Pesci, who won an Academy Award for the role. His famous “Do you think I’m funny?” scene is really the only part of Goodfellas I remembered from my first viewing in the late 90s, but I remembered that scene quite well!
Prognosis: If you ever have trouble with violence in the movies, you’re not going to want to watch Goodfellas. That aside, who are you going to believe: me, or the late Roger Ebert plus the cumulative wisdom of more than 600,000 voters in the imdb community?
My imdb rating: 6.