“Based on a true story.” Great. I love it when films feel the need to tell us this. Why? I don’t get how that has any purpose. Is it supposed to make us realize that the world is messed up, and that the things we see in movies can happen? Is it to make us forgive any formulaic plots because that’s how it supposedly happened? Or is it just a piece of information that is largely unrelated, but is included because the filmmakers were forced to, or just could?
Regardless, Goodfellas is based on a true story. That’s what we’re told at the very beginning. We then cut to three men driving in a car, when they hear some banging. It’s their trunk, and inside is a man who is still alive. So they stab him and he dies. This is in 1970, although we soon go back to the 50’s, where we meet a teenager by the name of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta plays him when he grows up). He tells us through narration that he’s always wanted to be a gangster. He gets his wish, and soon plays a pivotal role in a crime family.
His boss is Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), who seems to own pretty much everything. Any deals that get made, and Paulie is in on it. Henry predominantly teams up with two men, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci). He marries fairly early on, and his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), gets in on the narration action. We see the events of the film from one of these two characters’ points of view, although it’s far more frequent for us to follow Henry. He’s more interesting anyway, because Karen is just a wife who doesn’t do much more than raise the children and snort a lot of cocaine.
Goodfellas isn’t really about a plot, per se. It ends up spanning several decades, each one having their own, separate storyline. The characters, at least, the ones I’ve already described, are involved in each decade, although they play different roles in each. I’m still not sure why De Niro was the top-billed star though, as he is a side character, and clearly not the protagonist of this film. I guess it was just in an attempt to bring more people to the theater, but out of the three main actors, (Liotta, De Niro and Pesci), De Niro is probably featured the least.
This is a film that is mostly dealing with showing us the life of a gangster, and how it impacts both you, and everyone you know. This is described to us in great detail with the narrations, and then it is shown to us on-screen through the actions of the characters. By the end of Goodfellas, you’ll know what it’s like to be a gangster, and you’ll know the way that gangsters think. These are smart, calculated people — most of the time, anyway. Sometimes they make irrational and quick decisions, and you learn that these decisions have consequences.
For example, the man who is killed in the film’s opening scene was a “made man,” someone who isn’t to be touched. By killing him, you are told that there are consequences to face. As a result, the killers need to hide the body and make very sure that nobody is going to find out that you were the one to have performed the hit. Later scenes reinforce this way of thinking, and you get to find out how ruthless gangsters can be.
If you get horrified by the contents of the film, you have reason to. You likely wouldn’t want to be any of the characters within, because you would be unhappy. That’s not to say that they don’t live a life of luxury, because they get to have fancy parties and drive nice cars. Unfortunately, you also have a chance to be betrayed at any moment by your peers, even if all you’re doing is joking around with them. And you won’t get any sympathy from anyone, you’ll just get buried by the side of the road. This is the life of a gangster.
None of the people in this film are ones that you’re supposed to like. But they’re complex, well-written and interesting, so you’ll constantly want to see what they do next. And when things do go wrong for them, you’ll be disappointed not in the action of getting caught or shot, but because they let that happen to themselves. At one point in the film, one character states that “the only people who go to jail are the ones that want to.” When you see someone go to jail later on, you wonder if that quote is true, or if these things can just happen to anyone.
Everyone in this film is acted well, although there were some characters that felt more one-dimensional than others. A character named Morrie (Chuck Low) is introduced later on, but his only purpose seems to be to bug Robert De Niro for money. When a hit was placed on his head, I was happy, because I figured that he might finally be forced to shut up. Joe Pesci’s character, while hilarious, seemed to be there just for comic relief. He served that purpose well, and has the best scene in the movie, but that’s about all he had to do with his time on-screen.
However, the vast majority of the film is filled with interesting scenarios and engaging sequences. You can’t take your eyes away from what’s going on, even if what’s being shown is a man getting his skull crushed in. (That’s tastefully cut away from, and instead we watch the characters doing the beating instead of the victim.) It’s almost completely engrossing and you’ll find the two and a half hour runtime feeling like nothing by the time everything is said and done.
Goodfellas is a really solid gangster film with a strong cast and multiple interesting stories. While some of the characters feel one-note, they’re all well-written and interesting, and since the film as a whole is so engaging, you’ll end up having a good enough time while watching it. If nothing else, you’ll get a good feeling about what it would be like to be a gangster, because remember, this is “based on a true story.”