You know the type of movie that just makes you feel good? Toy Story and The Sandlot come to mind. What about the type that takes you back to a simpler time, like Forrest Gump or Apollo 13? And don't you love movies like The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty, the type that make you realize that despite all the cruelty and injustice, the world is truly a beautiful place? The 1990's were full of these movies. Goodfellas ain't one of them.
From the opening credits to the closing scene, there is neither a warm nor a fuzzy feeling to be had. It's a movie about life in the mafia as seen through the eyes of someone who lived it, and it doesn't pull any punches. For an organization centered around respect, these guys don't bat an eye when it comes to stealing, abusing their women, and stabbing each other in the neck with whatever writing implement happens to be at hand. Come to think of it, an eye is pretty much the only thing they don't bat. Even the most admirable of the movie's protagonists have their best friends whacked (they just don't do it themselves). Greedy and underhanded at their best, diabolical at their worst, at the core of it they're immoral opportunists in a city full of opportunity. The movie's title is truly ironic, as these fellas are anything but good.
It's also a veritable Who's Who of mafia actors in film and television. Pick a name from The Sopranos, or Casino, or a Bronx Tale, and chances are pretty good that they were in Goodfellas. If they weren't, it's a safe assumption that they got whacked before the opening credits. Ray Liotta plays the film's central wiseguy, Henry Hill, a man who is literally raised by the mob in 1960's New York, along with his best friend, the stocky powder keg Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci, appropriately). Under the tutelage of the steet-wise Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), Henry works his way up through the ranks. The journey takes him from small-time hijacking to a multi-million dollar airline heist; in the process, we see the highs and lows in the life of a blue-collar gangster driven only by greed, impulse, and cocaine-fueled paranoia.
Director Martin Scorcese and writers Scorcese and Nicholas Pileggi (author of "Wise Guys", the book upon which the film is based) have created a raw and unrelenting cinematic landscape, which is not without its share of spectacle-- if skin could literally crawl, there are scenes in Goodfellas that would cause it to. Did I mention that a guy gets stabbed in the neck? I was mistaken. Two guys get stabbed in the neck. I could drone on about the violence in Goodfellas, but the IMDB Parents Guide has already done a fine job (on a 1-10 scale, Goodfellas scored a perfect 10). I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you plan on screening Goodfellas for your 2nd grade class (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099685/parentalguide). Some excerpts:
- A man is shot in the back of the head; blood splatters all over the room he was in and he flops to the ground. He is then shot three more times and his body is seen with bloody bullet holes and blood leaking out of them.
- A man repeatedly pistol whips another man and the man's nose practically breaks off.
- A dead man is shown hanging by his neck on a meat hook in a refrigerated meat locker in the back of an 18-wheeler.
Violence aside, Goodfellas really is a pleasure to watch. It belongs alongside the likes of The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, and Clockwork Orange-- grotesque at times, but nuanced and complex. Scorcese and Pileggi's screenplay gives dimension to characters that could have fallen flat in less capable hands. Liotta, Pesci, and De Niro are in top form. Lorraine Bracco plays Hill's wife, Karen, who tries to remain simultaneously ignorant of, and complicit with, his activities. Paul Sorvino is eerily convincing as a Godfather-type. Also, watch for Michael Imperioli as the unfortunate Spider... and Martin Scorcese's own mother, Catherine Scorcese, as Tommy's mother.
Do yourself a favor-- cook up some pasta, grill a few steaks, open a bottle of red wine and watch Goodfellas. Indulge your fascination with organized crime. Satisfy your gratuitous violence sweet tooth. Enjoy a great film by one of America's top filmmakers. And while you're at it, get your shinebox.