If the Godfather films used organized crime as a personification of the corruption of the American society and dream, Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas never rises out of the surface level, not because it is shallow but because it gets itself in too deep. Who can stop to think of the poetry of illegality and how it represents the truth ethos of American law and organization when you're too busy looking over your shoulder for the guy who's gonna whack you? Michael Corleone would sympathize, but only in his twilight: "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me right back in," he once said. The gangsters of GoodFellas do not even have the luxury of dreaming of escape.
Of course, to call the crime that occurs in GoodFellas "organized" would be generous. It charts the street level thugs, not the consiglieres and dons who buy casinos and bribe senators; the few visible higher-ups who manage to stand out above the rest never involve themselves in anything more substantive than the local rackets. What's interesting of Scorsese's eye-level document of gangster life is how the lower-level soldiers and minor bosses, when separated from those no higher than a caporegime, think of themselves as kings, even when they report to practically everyone. Hell, most of them aren't even made men.
A young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta as an adult) only noticed the swagger, though. "All my life I wanted to be a gangster," he tells us over a scene of horrific brutality that precedes a flashback, and the irony of the placement of that declaration dissipates in the face of Henry's childhood memories. A half-Irish, half-Sicilian brat with no future, Henry looks out across the street to members of the Lucchese Family and sees only idols. All they do is run stolen goods, but they have tons of cash and total respect, something that the kid values more than anything an education might get him. So, he starts to work for the wiseguys, which his parents enjoy until the father realizes what he really does.
Young Henry goes from an unremarkable, pre-gray-flannel-suit American teen to one of those low-ranking kings. He is made to park the wiseguys' Cadillacs and hock crates of beer and stolen cartons of cigarettes, yet the neighborhood kids carry his mother's groceries, and thugs intimidate the postman who delivers Henry's mail in order to stop him handing letters from school officials and truant officers to Henry's father. Of course, Henry's dad seems to react so angrily to his son skipping school not because he wants the boy to get a proper education but because he does not like the idea of his son gaining more clout than him.
GoodFellas opens with the old "Based on a true story" chestnut that usually announces a series of half-truths and whole lies. That's true of this film, too, but among the many delights of GoodFellas is the balance between some of Scorsese's most straight-faced and "realistic" direction and his usual fanciful interpretation. The script itself mainly served as a transcription of improvisations the actors performed in rehearsal, so much of the dialogue of this true story comes from the actors. That first scene, taken from the sequence that would bridge the first and second halves later in the film, casts the three main wiseguys -- Henry, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) -- in the Expressionistic red of the brake lights interspersed with blinding white bursts as Tommy shoots the half-dead man in Henry's trunk, reveals how Scorsese's aesthetic certainly doesn't stick to documentary-like verité either.
But the use of both subjective direction and improvised acting makes GoodFellas feel so real. The camera draws us into this world, while the increasingly panicked and paranoid mannerisms of the actors, even if they're speaking their own lines and not those of the real-life mafiosos and wives they play, give the audience a fly-on-the-wall perspective that more coldly scripted lines would have precluded. As a young adult, Henry walks through a night club, and the camera takes his POV as it glides through the place as wiseguys, these old and powerful men, turn and address Henry (and the camera, and therefore us) and greet him as an equal. The effect nearly drowns out Henry's narration, speaking volumes of the allure of what Scorsese always paints in a negative light even as he allows us to empathize. Violence permeates GoodFellas, even more so than Scorsese's preceding films, and the great triumph of the director's work here is the manner with which he can play it so broadly that it's often comedic even as the sadistic, lawless brutality constantly undercuts Henry's nostalgic view of his gangster life.
Occasionally, GoodFellas practically intoxicates the viewer with its hints of power. When Henry takes his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco, the film's sole weak link) on their first true date, Scorsese employs a tracking shot that manages even to shame the previous one. After all, the first tracking shot showed us why Henry loved Family life, but he'd also already become used to it; the second tacitly assumes Karen's perspective as she watches this punky, self-absorbed 21-year-old transform into a deity. He practically changes the properties of the microcosm of the club: he parts the entry line to get in through the side door, walks calmly and amicably through the kitchen where patrons cannot enter, a chair "materializes" in the packed restaurant for Henry and his date, and much older people buy Henry free wine out of respect. Scorsese has to end the shot with a pan to a shitty, hackneyed comic just to remind us that this isn't someone's wonderful dream.
Karen's embrace of Henry, aroused as she is by his violent reprisal for a groping neighbor and his flashy wealth and power, shows how even the routinely abused women in this underworld cannot consider another life once they've had a taste. Sure, you have to pay your respects and, most importantly, "keep your mouth shut," but a wiseguy only has to obey the wiseguys' rules, not society's. As such, the insanity of gangster life often plays as comedy so grandiose it might have fit in the silent age were it not so rooted in dialogue. Tommy, attempting to woo a Jewish woman, displays the typical solipsism of the gangsters when he unironically chuckles, "I can't believe this. A Jew broad prejudiced against Italians!" Scorsese then juxtaposes, despite their lengthy time apart, scenes of Karen's Jewish mother and Tommy's Sicilian mom to demonstrate how the two are practically carbon copies for all the ethnic hand-wringing of both the Jews and Italians who constantly insult each other. Tommy in general walks the line between lunacy and dark comedy, his emotional rollercoaster so wild it sweeps up all those in his company: in perhaps the film's most quoted scene, Tommy has a dinner party in stitches before suddenly turning into a cold and intimidating killer when Henry remarks how funny the hothead is. "Funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you?" he hisses, until he finally reveals that he's kidding and people laugh even harder. That's Tommy for you: he can cow everyone in fear or win their love, often with only the briefest separation between the two.
The most absurd comedy, though, reveals just how powerful even these low-level guys are. "Nobody goes to jail unless they want to," Henry tells Karen, and when he is later pinched, he has his driver take him to jail as if going for a meeting. He might as well be, as he and the other incarcerated gangsters live as though nothing changed; they even get access to a kitchen to cook hearty Italian meals. There's no place that the wiseguys cannot make more comfortable. As the film continues, however, the humor and irony of this infiltration reveals its double edge: it also means that there's no place to hide.
Henry is, after all, placed in the center of two men who will lead him to the same destruction, albeit in diametrically opposed paths. Tommy, the white-hot nova packed into Pesci's small frame, is the embodiment of the childish freedom allotted to these gangsters: free to berate, beat, even kill practically anyone who sparks his short temper, Tommy is the unglamorous portrait of what happens when a person is not held accountable (and, when he eventually is, of the stark horror of mob "justice"). Jimmy, on the other hand, is more measured and calculating. Along with caporegime Paulie (Paul Sorveno), Jimmy is one of the few truly organized members of the demonstrated organized crimes. Though violent and ruthless, he carries himself with a more professional and typically calm attitude. He orchestrates the Lufthansa heist, at the time the largest cash robbery ever committed on American soil. In the aftermath, however, Jimmy slowly devolves. As the other criminals immediately advertise their guilt by spending their cuts on expensive, noticeable purchases like cars and mink coats, Jimmy takes drastic measures to protect himself, gradually eliminating almost everyone connected to the heist. In the film's best sequence, perfectly set to the ending strains of Derek & the Dominoes' "Layla," Scorsese's camera glides over images of bodies stowed in cars, dumpsters and even a meat wagon to show where all roads lead in the goodfellas' world.
Jimmy's own descent into paranoia prefigures the intensified final act, in which Henry, made rich but also addicted by selling coke, falls apart in an amphetamine haze. Living in a house that makes Dirk Diggler's pad look tasteful by comparison, Henry practically gives himself to the cops, who track him by helicopter in a funny sequence where Henry constantly makes his companions look for the helicopter to prove he's not crazy. Both he and Karen lose their minds as police raid the house and arrest Henry, as he fears Paulie's wrath while Karen comes to dread Jimmy, who himself frets that Henry will rat on him. Their entire world is based on keeping quiet, but they all live such ostentatious lives that they don't need to speak to give themselves away.
At last, the house of cards finally comes tumbling down. "Being together all the time made everything seem so normal," Karen tells us much earlier in the film; the close-knit nature of family and Family life only further enhances their feelings of superiority and separation from the rest of society. But society eventually breaks up this loose community, and we see how shaky the ties that bind really are, jiggled loose as they are in the frenzy of cocaine-induced hysteria. By this point we're entirely inside Henry's mind, which is probably why Scorsese then chooses to harshly expel us from it. Perhaps because memory of Taxi Driver's controversy (or the more recent hullabaloo over The Last Temptation of Christ) hung over his head, the director does not finish the film in harmonic subjectivity. Instead, Henry stops in the middle of testifying before entering the Witness Relocation Program to rail directly at the audience, who largely complained about this ending. It's understandable, as it shows a man, even in defeat, so arrogant that he turns on the people he invited to listen to his tale. By breaking the engagement of his own story, Henry uses his last bit of screentime to impart one last reminder that he, and those like him, is nothing more than a cocky jerk, and no amount of short-lived power can disguise what a pathetic and aggravating man he is.