“Goodfellas” is a film about “being a guy, and getting high on being a guy”, wrote Pauline Kael in 1990. In typical Kael fashion, she killed it (or Kaelled it). Busting balls, having a laugh, sleeping around, sharp suits, money, respect—every guy’s fantasy, right? Except “Goodfellas” lays bare exactly how depraved and debauched this kind of fantasy is. But unfortunately, this fantasy, to many people, has the capacity—irresistibly so—to become a reality.
“Goodfellas” depicts the exhilarating attraction of the mob: its glamourous life-style, its allure, its pull. It shows a group of well-dressed, well-groomed guys hanging out in restaurants and bars surrounded by a sphere of influence so immense that no one dare criticise for fear of being whacked. But like all things magnetic, there’s always a repulsive side.
The title is, of course, ironic. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) boasts, “We always called each other goodfellas. Like you said to somebody: ‘You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a goodfella.’” For these people, “goodfella” is a term of endearment. It’s a slap on the back. Call someone a “goodfella” and they’re “one of the guys”. Yet these men live lives of extreme violence. They destroy things for the fun of it and laugh when someone hands them the bill. They pull out a gun when a person undermines them and then shoot simply if they don’t like their face.
But yeah, they’re “goodfellas” all right.
Part of the genius of “Goodfellas” is that it manages to depict two contradictory attitudes towards the mafia at the same time. On one hand, it shows how enticing gangsterism can be. But the other hand is soaked in blood—the disturbing reality of a superficial dream. Scorsese employs almost every cinematic technique available to highlight the mind-set of a character caught up in this kind of world. He serves us this world on a platter, and we see how appetising it all looks. But we also see how bitter it all tastes.
Take the famous tracking shot through the “Copacabana”. It’s a lavish, fluid shot designed to show Henry’s power and influence within the establishment. But it’s also an attempt to reflect Henry’s posturing as he shows off to his date Karen (Lorraine Bracco) the respect and reverence he receives at every turn. All the doors are opened to him and he’s treated like royalty. Henry, the setting, the treatment—they’re all as ostentatious as the shot that captures it.
Making a film that undermines the “gangster paradise” is never easy. One can easily fall into the realm of glamorising violence, and many of Scorsese’s films have been accused of doing just that—including “Goodfellas”. But the violence in “Goodfellas” is never glamorous. It’s ugly, brutal and messy. The scene in which Henry beats up one of Karen’s neighbours, after she claims he assaulted her, is not an easy scene to watch. The reason for this is because there are two other men in the background that witness the attack. They are integral to the scene. They react to the violence in a way in which anyone with even a shred of empathy would—with fear and revulsion. In other words, they react as we, the audience, would. Whilst this act unfolds, however, the camera remains still. All the quick edits, jump cuts and montages are gone. Scorsese (and his genius, long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker) give us a single lingering shot, forcing us to endure the act as it really is—shocking, barbaric and real.
This attraction and brutal reality at the heart of the mafia (assuming it has a heart) is embodied by Tommy (Joe Pesci): a hot-headed psycho who commits appalling crimes with glee and then turns them into amusing anecdotes at dinner. Yet everyone wants to dine with Tommy. Everyone wants to laugh along with his pontificating—that is, until he asks you why he’s funny. He’s a gun-crazy bully in the vain of the Hollywood gangster types from the 30s (an allusion to James Cagney in “The Public Enemy” before the movie’s credits shows that Scorsese is well aware of this parallel). Wiseguys love Tommy despite his loathsome behaviour because he can tell a joke. And in the perverted world of the Mafioso, it’s guys like these that are regarded as the good guys. It’s hilarious, right?—the Mafiosofunny.
The female characters in “Goodfellas” are, in many ways, just as shallow, superficial and narcissistic as the men; for Scorsese paints a world in which everyone is self-obsessed, everyone is obnoxious. When Karen narrates her first encounter with all the other goodfellas’ wives, she is repulsed by their gaudy, kitschy way of life. We, however, see the seedy hypocritical construct at play wherein the women are dolled up now only to be treated like dirt later. The women dress loudly and show up at parties. The men talk loudly and show off at parties. The women are depicted horribly, the men are depicted horribly; but neither is horribly depicted.
Karen’s arc is one of the movie’s most interesting narrative aspects. She is initially disgusted by Henry’s insensitive attitude and tactless behaviour, but when he beats up her neighbour, she admits, it turned her on. She soon becomes used to the extravagance, the money and the drugs, and tolerates the abuse and dangers to herself and her family.
At the end of the film, Henry has the temerity to criticise the unjustly fortunate situation he finds himself in. Having ratted out those that he idolised since childhood, having escaped death time and time again, and now under a Witness Protection Programme, he whines repeatedly about having to lead a “normal” life. He simply can’t put up with the fact that he may not always get what he wants: “I order spaghetti with marinara sauce; they give me egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
Scorsese shows that the laddish fantasy of being part of the mob is a repulsive testosterone nightmare. Men live violently and excessively, while women are treated abysmally—and the guys find it all hilarious. But there are few things more insufferable than men slapping each other on the back laughing about how great it is to be a man. “Goodfellas” knows this. Real goodfellas don’t.