Goodfellas (1990) | Review by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael's review praises "GoodFellas" for its vivid filmmaking but criticizes its shallow characters and lack of depth, celebrating style over substantial narrative.
Goodfellas (1990)

Pauline Kael’s review of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas highlights the film’s energetic and vivid portrayal of the Mafia life, comparing it to Raging Bull but with a more joyful tone. Kael appreciates the film’s dynamic and exuberant depiction of mobsters reveling in their power and wealth, capturing Scorsese’s passion for the Brooklyn gang milieu. While she acknowledges the movie’s triumphant filmmaking and engaging visual style, she critiques the lack of depth in the characters, particularly the three main mobsters played by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci. Kael finds that the film, though filled with memorable scenes and impressive directorial flair, lacks a strong narrative arc and deeper character development, making it more of a celebration of filmmaking technique than a profound exploration of its subjects.

* * *

by Pauline Kael

Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas has a lift. It’s like Raging Bull, except that it’s not domineering. It’s like Raging Bull made in a jolly, festive frame of mind. It’s about being a guy and guys getting high on being a guy. In the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy, which this movie is based on, the Mafia-led mobsters are moral runts—and that was the joke of how John Huston showed them, from the Don on down, in Prizzi’s Honor. But Scorsese, a rap artist keeping up the heat, doesn’t go in for ironic detachment. He loves the Brooklyn gang milieu, because it’s where distortion, hyperbole, and exuberance all commingle. His mobsters are high on having a wad of cash in their pockets. The movie is about being cock of the walk, with banners flying and crowds cheering.

Is it a great movie? I don’t think so. But it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking—journalism presented with the brio of drama. Every frame is active and vivid, and you can feel the director’s passionate delight in making these pictures move. When Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), the central character, crosses a Long Island street to beat up the man who tried to put the make on his girl, the dogwood is in bloom, and all through this movie we’re aware of the ultra-greenness of the suburbs that the gangsters live in; these thieves are always negotiating their way through shrubs and hedges. Or they’re preparing food, ceremonially, gregariously—stirring vats of sauce, slicing garlic razor thin. We see them in bars and restaurants, where they take preferential treatment as their due, and in the tacky interiors of their noisy homes. We see them hijacking, fencing stolen goods, fixing horse races, shaking down restaurant owners, committing arson, preparing cargo thefts at the airport, burying murder victims. And the different aspects of their lives are like operatic motifs.

What’s missing? Well, there are no great voices. The script, by Pileggi and Scorsese, isn’t really dramatized; instead, Scorsese raises the volume on the music, and the guys work themselves up, get hard, erupt. This isn’t the kind of mindless movie that offers up brutality as entertainment, with good guys versus bad guys. Scorsese offers up brutal racketeering and says this is all there is to these men. Scorsese’s Jake La Motta could do one thing: fight. These guys can do one thing: steal.

The book is an account of the life of the actual Henry Hill, as he told it to Pileggi after he entered the Federal Witness Protection Program, and the movie picks up his story in 1955, with the obliging eleven-year-old kid, half-Irish, half-Sicilian, working as an errand boy at the cabstand hangout of the Brooklyn neighborhood gang headed by Paulie (Paul Sorvino). As the gang’s pet, Henry gets the approval he wants and plenty of spending money; by the time he’s fourteen, he’s on the payroll of a construction company and knows the ins and outs of the rackets. In the years ahead, crime is a romp for him. He gets a real charge out of pulling scams side by side with his older pals, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci), and when he takes his Jewish girlfriend, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), to flashy, expensive places he hands out big tips and is greeted as a celebrity. (He’s twenty-one.) Karen, who’s no bimbo (she has a sense of her worth), likes the danger that emanates from him. His life has the look of a Puerto Rican Day parade crossed with a rock concert; she’s excited when she sees his gun (the gun he slugged his rival with). In Raging Bull, the young male tries to ram his way through a brick wall; in GoodFellas, the young male finds a welcoming warm spot, first with Paulie and the gang, and soon with Jimmy and Tommy, and then with his wife—Karen—and a couple of kids, and a mistress set up in an apartment.

It’s a little off key when Henry reacts to Tommy and Jimmy’s acts of violence with puzzled revulsion. During a card game, Joe Pesci’s Tommy, clowning around, shoots a teenager who’s slow to serve him a drink. Incidents like this— they’re terrifically well framed—appear to be pointing toward an awakening sensibility in Henry, but nothing comes of them, so they seem perfunctory, a sop to conventionality. (De Niro has a scene where he goes berserk, and that doesn’t develop into anything, either.)

The movie’s underpinnings could have been linked together: they suggest that the Mafia and other organized-crime gangs are continually being destroyed from within by raw male lawlessness. De Niro’s Jimmy brings off the theft of a lifetime—the six-million-dollar Lufthansa heist, until then the biggest cash robbery in United States history—but he can’t control his troops; they’re so undisciplined, such small-timers at heart, that they start spending ostentatiously, and paranoiac Jimmy, who wants to keep all the dough anyway, takes it as a regretful necessity that he has to whack them— i.e., bump them off. (There were at least ten murders after the successful robbery.) Paulie has strict rules against drugs, because drugs turn men into informers who destroy the “family.” But the family doesn’t have the decency (or forethought) to support the wives and children of the men who are sent to prison, so when Henry is sent up, Karen becomes his partner, smuggling him dope that he deals inside—it’s like a regular franchise. And he begins snorting cocaine. (The movie is about how swindling makes you feel alive, and that’s what cocaine can keep you feeling.) By the time Henry is out of prison and is running a dealership from his Long Island home, he’s a manic wreck, ready to sell out his mentor, Paulie, and every hood he knows. And he feels justified, because his closest pal, Jimmy, is ready to whack him and his wife, too.

But Scorsese doesn’t weight the incidents dramatically; he leaves the themes, and even the story, lying there inert. In a hurried, not very shapely concluding sequence he ties up some threads and tells us about a few of the characters in final titles—omitting, though, a high-comic piece of information: Hill was so determinedly crooked he used the new identity given him by the Witness Protection Program to start up a new life of thievery and was thrown out of the program. But then we’ve learned so little about him. It’s startling to read the title telling us that Henry and Karen separated after twenty-five years, because we realize we don’t have any knowledge of what kept them together so long. The picture has scope rather than depth. We see Henry Hill only from the outside, and he has been made to seem slightly cut off from the mob life. He has been turned into a retread of the anxious, dutiful Harvey Keitel character in Mean Streets, when he needs to be a rat and the motor of the movie. GoodFellas is like the Howard Hawks Scarface without Scarface.

Paul Sorvino’s Paulie comes through; reluctant to move his bulk, he basks in his power quietly, and never calls attention to himself. Though Lorraine Bracco’s Karen doesn’t get much screen time, she has a hot, bright vitality; she seems more sexual, more full of go, than her husband. She’s in love with him even when she pulls a gun on him. And some of the minor players give the movie a frenzied, funny texture. Tony Darrow is comically desperate as a restaurant owner who’s so exhausted by the mob’s harassment that he pleads with Paulie to accept a partnership in the business. Welker White brings a nip of assertiveness to her scenes as a Waspy drug courier who has to have her lucky hat to make a coke delivery. And all the mobsters and hangers-on and their women seem to belong to their settings. It’s just the three major hoods, played by Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci, who don’t have a strong enough presence.

Scorsese had a great critical success with Raging Bull (1980), selected by international polls of critics as the best film of the eighties—a picture in which he presented his central character as an icon of brutishness. This time, he wants the central characters to be realistically shallow. But what flattens the movie isn’t that they’re shallow sociopaths; it’s that these sociopaths are conceived shallowly, the way they used to be in B pictures. (It wasn’t just the low budgets that were evoked by the term “B picture”; it was also the unmemorable characters.) When Henry Hill is a child, he lives across the street from the Mafia cabstand and observes the sporty life of racketeers as they get in and out of limos; he wants to make it big like them. The life he watches is like the images on movie screens that Scorsese and the rest of us watched, but we’re not invited to identify with his longings.

An actor can play a shallow hood and still be memorable if we’re drawn in to understand the hood’s motives and emotions. (Bogart used to take us pretty deeply into hoods.) But these actors seem too old for their parts, too settled in. They get to us only in isolated scary scenes: Pesci’s Tommy demanding “What do you mean, I’m funny?,” De Niro’s Jimmy wearing an unnatural smile as he waves Karen into what might be a death trap.

Yet the moviemaking has such bravura that you respond as if you were at a live performance. It’s Scorsese’s performance. He came of age as a director in the early seventies, at a time when many film enthusiasts were caught up in the sixties idea that a good movie is always about its director. There’s a streak of metaphoric truth in this, but here Scorsese puts the idea right up front.

The filmmaking process becomes the subject of the movie. All you want to talk about is the glorious whizzing camera, the freeze-frames and jump cuts. That may be why young film enthusiasts are so turned on by Scorsese’s work: they don’t just respond to his films, they want to be him. When Orson Welles made Touch of Evil, the filmmaking process just about took over—the movie was one flourish after another. But that was 1958, and making a thriller about your own wallowing love of the film medium was a thrilling stunt. And Welles didn’t drain the characters; rather, he made them more baroque, to match his flourishes. He filled the screen with stars. In 1990, when a movie spans thirty years and runs to epic length, we may miss what big characters can do—what Nick Nolte’s sly Lionel Dobie did for Scorsese’s Life Lessons, in New York Stories, drawing everything together.

Scorsese the arousal junkie makes you feel you’d like to hang out with him and listen to him tell how he brought off the effects; he’s a master. But this picture doesn’t have the juice and richness that come with major performances. It has no arc, and doesn’t climax; it just comes to a stop. Conceivably the abruptness could work, but I don’t think it does. Will the lift of the moviemaking still carry some people aloft? Maybe, because watching the movie is like getting strung out on pure sensation. That’s Scorsese’s idea of a hood’s life. It’s also a young film enthusiast’s dream of a director’s life, and in Scorsese’s case it’s not too far from the truth.

The New Yorker, September 24, 1990


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