In GoodFellas, director Martin Scorsese does something simple and audacious: He takes the guilt out of organized crime. The movie, a savagely up-front, quasi-comic epic about life in the mob, follows the career of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-Sicilian Brooklyn kid who insinuates himself into the local wing of the Mafia and grows up to become a canny and devoted ”wise guy.” Henry’s reasons for involving himself in crime couldn’t be clearer. The local gangsters get everything they want — money, women, respect. They wear great clothes, are treated like kings at nightclubs, and spend most of their waking hours in a self-contained dreamworld of pleasure and animal instinct. Why shouldn’t Henry join the party?
Most movies about criminal figures have a moralistic arc. We watch as the hero rises and then falls, a victim of his own appetite and ambition. Scorsese has brought off the rare feat of making a genuinely amoral film. GoodFellas is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, yet it’s little more than a high-powered series of incidents. We watch the suave, savvy Henry engineer his moneymaking schemes (most of them involve stealing huge shipments of merchandise), marry a beautiful Long Issand Jewish girl (Lorraine Bracco) who’s turned on by his criminality, screw around to his heart’s content, assist in brutal executions, do time in a ridiculously cushy jail, get hooked on drugs, and fall into a climactic feudal war centering on his trusted comrade Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro). Throughout, Scorsese maintains a tone of lurid, driving objectivity. That’s the film’s strength and its limitation.
Scene for scene, GoodFellas is often mesmerizing. Scorsese, adapting Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 novel Wiseguy (the two of them collaborated on the screenplay), draws us into the raw excitement of Henry’s world even as he shows us the shocking spurts of violence that propel it. At one point, Henry is hanging out with the boys at the local bar when his cohort, the wormy, bullying Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), decides to cause a little trouble. Pesci gives a masterful performance as a crudely fearless, paranoid runt who’s constantly in need of demonstrating his own power. And Scorsese is better than any director alive at bringing out the casual unreasonableness of those who live by violence. As Pesci beats the crap out of a perfectly innocent restaurant owner, the moment escalates into brutal, slapstick horror.
Yet even as I was caught up in scenes like this, something stuck in my craw. Liotta’s smiling, diplomatic Henry is presented as a smooth operator, a basically good guy who’s attracted to crime because he wants to live high. A movie devoted to the hedonistic lure of criminality is all well and good (in a sense, anything else would be hypocritical), yet it’s vital that we understand how Henry rationalizes away the ugly underbelly of the life he’s leading. We need to see how he desensitizes himself — to feel the price he pays.
Instead, Scorsese takes the easy way out. It’s not just Henry who’s desensitized; the whole movie is desensitized. It shows us people being killed in bloody, awful ways, yet we’re never asked to respond to the victims as human beings (as we were in, say, The Godfather). And so we’re ”inside” the consciousness of a mobster only in a clinical, abstract way.
Scorsese got deep inside the vicious antiheroes of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. Here, it’s almost as if he is concocting a schoolboy fantasy of remorseless evil. GoodFellas is brilliant surface moviemaking, but it’s hollow at the center. The trouble with the movie is that Liotta’s Henry has no inner life as a character. Scorsese borrows a great deal of narration from Pileggi’s book (in the final section, it sounds like the book is being read aloud), yet that’s not the same as dramatizing your hero’s soul. GoodFellas yearns to be another great Scorsese film. What’s missing is Scorsese’s humanity. B