Simultaneously fascinating and repellent, “Goodfellas” is Martin Scorsese’s colorful but dramatically unsatisfying inside look at Mafia life in 1955 – 80 New York City. Commercial prospects for the overlong release appear relatively modest, and noisy bloodletting is likely to take place between warring critical camps.
Scorsese’s intent here, to show how a life of brutal crime could look compelling to an Irish-Italian kid whose sordid upbringing hasn’t prepared him for anything better, is undercut by the offputting, opaque characterization of Ray Liotta. Sympathy is not the issue here, empathy is.
First half of the film, introing Ray Liotta and viewer to the Mafia milieu, is wonderful. Scorsese’s perfectly cast friezes of grotesque hoodlum types are caricatures in the best sense of the word. There’s a giddy sense of exploring a forbidden world with conventional blinders removed.
The second half, however, doesn’t develop the dramatic conflicts between the character and the milieu that are hinted at earlier. The effect is simply to keep piling on and intensifying Liotta’s horrific and ultimately numbing descent into depravity.
Working from the non-fiction book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi, who collaborated with him on the screenplay, Scorsese returns to the subject matter of his 1973 “Mean Streets” but from a more distanced, older, wiser and subtler perspective.
Liotta starts as a gofer for laconic neighborhood godfather Paul Sorvino, gradually coming under the tutelage of Robert De Niro, cast as a middle-aged Irish hood of considerable ruthlessness and repute.
The often misplaced dramatic thread is the question of whether Liotta will adhere to his mentor’s early lesson of never ratting on his fellow mobsters.
The character’s split ethnic identity never comes clearly into focus, whether as a tragic figure like Al Pacino in “The Godfather” or as an unabashed psychopath like the title characters in “The Krays,” recent Brit pic.
“Being somebody in a neighborhood of nobodies” in “Goodfellas” means going along with whatever brutalities are required. This is made clear right from the credit sequence, in which Liotta queasily watches De Niro and Joe Pesci perform a coldblooded execution. Scorsese never spares the viewer the heinousness of the murders regularly punctuating the story.
Liotta develops a flashy, pretty-boy persona that overcomes the inadequately dramatized misgivings of Lorraine Bracco, who plays a Jewish girl drawn into the life of a Mafia wife. “I gotta admit the truth, it turned me on,” she tells the audience after Liotta viciously beats up someone who made a pass at her.
“Goodfellas” seems to be building up to a change of heart by Liotta about what he’s becoming, and to a violent break with Bracco. But both options are by-passed as the pic shows Liotta emerging from jail in 1974 to become a cocaine dealer with Bracco’s enthusiastic help and against the orders of the old-fashioned Sorvino.
Sorvino’s scruples recall those of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” but since “Goodfellas” doesn’t share the “Godfather” films’ examination of the Mafia’s evolution in reaction to social injustice, the conflict has no weight and Scorsese misguidedly abandons his focus on the mob community to tell the unrewarding story of a lone wolf.
The film’s style in the second half turns into a frenetic, feverish mimicry of the wasted-looking Liotta’s coked-up mental state. De Niro, who’s in the process of sealing his own destruction by eliminating fellow participants in a big heist, goes along with the new economics of crime, and Liotta winds up having to choose in a pinch between freedom and loyalty.
One of the film’s major flaws is that De Niro, with his menacing charm, always seems more interesting than Liotta, but he isn’t given enough screen time to explore the relationship fully in his top-billed supporting role.
All tech contributions are first-rate, particularly the lensing by Michael Ballhaus and production design by Kristi Zea, who manage to make the film look bright and alluring while still capturing the slimy bad taste of the milieu.
Thelma Schoonmaker’s always masterful editing is taut in the first half, but the film rambles seriously after that, wearing out its interest at least half an hour before it’s over.
1990: Best Supp. Actor (Joe Pesci).
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actress (Lorraine Bracco), Adapted Screenplay, Editing