Overrated in 1990, *Goodfellas* has grown even more overrated with the passage of 15 years. It's based on the -- I daresay -- untrustworthy recollections of a half-Irish, half-Sicilian mobster-turned-informant who recently, I am reliably informed, appears as an addled, half-witted guest on "The Howard Stern Show". The narrative arc, if one can accurately term it that, spans 30 years, roughly from 1950 to 1980. This, of course, gives Martin Scorsese every incentive to soak the background with dozens of pop-culture tunes ranging from Bobby Vinton to Derek and the Dominoes. His use of the last 3 lilting minutes of "Layla" as some sort of ironic counterpoint in the extended montage that reveals the corpses of a dozen gruesomely executed mobsters in various places across New York City only underscores his utterly conventional taste in music. One wonders whether Scorsese would've been happier as a Top 40 deejay instead of a filmmaker.
His conventionality -- a surprising development, given his success with such Seventies classics as *Mean Streets* and *Taxi Driver*, both infused with his uniquely individual aesthetic -- extends beyond the soundtrack to the actual movie itself. Lovers of this movie will doubtless be distressed to learn that the various stylistic techniques Scorsese uses here -- whip-pans, sudden freezes that supposedly add ironic punctuation to the narrative, even the use of pop music as commentary on a montage -- all derive from French (yes, I said French) auteurs from the New Wave school of the Sixties and Seventies. These same lovers of this movie would probably also consider Orson Welles to be an overrated old fuddy-duddy, but that doesn't stop Scorsese from pointlessly laying on at least two sequences of long tracking-shots through complicated spatial arrangements without cuts, the device Welles perfected if not wholly invented. (An even less impressive feat for Scorsese, who benefits from the technological advance of the Steadicam. Welles did it with old-fashioned cameras on dollies and hydraulic cranes.) I believe that all these borrowings betray Scorsese's fundamental, perhaps unconscious, lack of confidence in the power of his story, here.
For the screenplay, let it be said at once, is poorly constructed. The narrative focuses on trivial events, like a gofer getting shot in the foot during a card game or Paul Sorvino slicing garlic to atomic thinness, and then presents the world-famous Lufthansa heist through hearsay. The movie's main character, Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, hears a news report about the heist while in the shower. One may reasonably ask why we're in the shower with Henry when we should be in the getaway car with Robert De Niro's Jimmy Conway and his henchmen. This, of course, leads one to reasonably ask why we're not watching a movie about Jimmy Conway instead of Henry Hill, the latter being, more often than not, on the periphery of the movie's main events. Having Liotta narrate the exciting stuff for us in voice-over is no substitute. Indeed, the movie is cripplingly dependent on voice-over narration, perhaps because Mr. Hill's own story, in and of itself, isn't interesting enough to really warrant a honest-to-goodness movie in the first place. As the movie drones on with Liotta's loquacious narrator ceaselessly filling in the narrative gaps, one suspiciously wonders -- for example -- why Hill and Conway are NOT whacked for bumping off "made man" Billy Bats, while Joe Pesci's Tommy DOES get whacked. All three men were involved in the killing, yet only Tommy pays the price. Why? Does Conway's and Hill's Irishness serve as a magical force-field? -- I don't get it. Well, I did say at the beginning of this review that Hill was an untrustworthy storyteller. From the evidence, it appears that Hill was quite conversant with his mob boss's cooking techniques (hence all the time wasted on cooking scenes and shots of gorgeously laid-out family feasts) and far less conversant with the important incidents that are the subject of this film. Note too how inconsistently handled Henry's character is throughout the film: one moment he pistol-whips almost to death a sexual predator who messes with his girlfriend, the next he's aghast when some punk kid gets carelessly killed. Hmm -- smells like self-hagiography to me.
After an overly-edited, chaotic, 30-minute final act in which a sweaty-faced, puffy-eyed Liotta drives around the suburbs, peering up through his windshield at police helicopters, dropping off hot guns, going to the grocery store, zipping back home to make meatballs (AGAIN with the cooking!), and so forth, he gets pinched for good. Under the umbrella of the Witness Protection program, he finally rats out his mob bosses . . . and it occurs to us that this should have been the focus of the film all along, i.e., the FBI's successful eroding of the criminal code using Witness Protection. But Scorsese crams it in during the last five minutes of this 3-hour movie. A little less time in the kitchen and in the shower, and a little more time getting down to business, might have made this movie pretty great.
As it is, the performers give *Goodfellas* undeniable energy, almost mitigating all its flaws. Fans of good New York actors will forgive this movie everything: Liotta, De Niro, Pesci, Sorvino, and Lorraine Bracco do THEIR job, at least. And perhaps this is why the movie is so well-loved. Colorful characters limned by great performances are entertaining. But, in my judgment, the virtues of verisimilitude can't overcome what amounts to a 3-hour-long non-story.
3 stars out of 10.
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