Filling in the Cinematic Gaps: Goodfellas (1990)
One of my favorite things in this cruel and uncaring world is to watch a movie in the theater, followed not too far down the list by watching a movie at home after my preschooler has finally gone to $*%#ing sleep. Lately, inspired by my friend Marc’s deep dive into cinema, I’ve been working to fill in the gaps in my cinematic experiences when I can find the time. The latest hole to be patched was Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
I’ve seen plenty of gangster movies and maybe a dozen episodes of the Sopranos, but it’s never been a genre in which I’ve taken a strong interest. Obviously I tend to go for things that are a bit less grounded in reality, and I’m not particularly a big fan of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, who seem to have acted or starred in 95% of all modern gangster movies.
Gangsters in this genre make me uneasy in the same way I suspect sharks make other people nervous. They’re unpredictable, dangerous, and deadly. Their deadliness makes it hard for me to watch stories about them because I spend the whole time waiting for them to come through the screen and whack me and my whole family. You might think this is odd because I like crime and heist movies. In those movies, the characters are less often murderers and more the thieving kind, and I find that less threatening and uncomfortable. Let’s face it: an awful lot of gangster movies end in an orgy of murder and mayhem.
That said, I overcame my discomfort long enough to sit through Goodfellas and generally, I’m glad I did. This is an oddly placed film in time, having come out in 1990, but it feels very much like an 80s or 70s film rather than a 90s one. The film grain, the acting, and the music choices anchor it in an earlier era, and as the film drifts from the 50s into the early 80s, it never quite stopped holding on to its earliest time periods.
One thing that stood out in the early chapters was how Scorsese leans hard on a freeze frame narrative device, in which Ray Liotta’s character can pontificate about his past without the film’s action running ahead of him. It’s an odd technique that I don’t recall him utilizing nearly so often in his other pictures. It had the overall impact of slowing down the picture to start, which may well have been his intent. At 146 minutes, it felt at times more like a solid 180+ minute picture.
A big surprise for me was that Ray Liotta was the real lead of this picture. Everything about this movie that had drifted into my general pop culture knowledge involved Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. Many of the lines of dialogue that were likely strong, memorable moments to original viewing have long since been milked of any vitality by the parodies that have followed (especially Pesci’s infamous scene where he busts Liotta’s balls over a simple compliment to the point where we soon fear violence will break out). Liotta’s performance as a somewhat dim-witted and at-times decent man contrasted well with his co-stars, and served as a strong narrator who at times faded a little too much in the background against his more colorful co-stars.
The stand-out performance here was Joe Pesci’s, of course. I loathed Pesci’s character from the first minute he was on screen until he finally took a bullet. Pesci’s performance here was great, definitely the kind of thing he specialized in for years–characters that you absolutely loved to hate. Pesci absolutely earned his Best Supporting Oscar in this picture, and as time goes on, his performance as that unhinged and unpredictable man will linger even as other memories of Goodfellas will fade.
If I had to summarize this movie, I would say: it’s about sharks in suits who spend a lot of time treating women like shit and then come to morally appropriate ends. It’s not a masterpiece of cinema like The Godfather and it’s not probably even as memorable a movie overall as even Casino. Scorsese’s ability to get memorable acting work out of these actors in goodfella wise-guy roles is on display here as usual, but structurally, and from a story-telling standpoint, it doesn’t stand up to the test of time. It ranks in the middle of Scorese’s oeuvre for me, but that’s still better than an awful lot of cinema out there.