Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" is some kind of masterpiece, but not the usual kind.
Scorsese is an American master; perhaps the American master. No director making films today has the visceral command of the movie camera that Scorsese has; he's a filmmaker who works from blood instinct, and there's exuberance, originality and a disquieting, stomach-wrenching brilliance in every frame of "GoodFellas."
You live Scorsese's movies, not just watch them; his camera locks right into your optic nerve. In "GoodFellas," his adaptation of "Wiseguy," Nicholas Pileggi's 1985 Mafia expose', he plugs us into the Brooklyn neighborhoods of the author's story, into the social clubs, the restaurants, the bars and living rooms that serve as a stage for the rituals of this closed-circuit crime universe, with such a ferocious immediacy that afterward you feel as if you have to wash the bloodstains out of your clothes.
The Mafia world of "Wiseguy" gives Scorsese a subject that's perfect for his explosive, hyperbolic talent. In an environment where the characters make their own rules -- steal, kill and act out their impulses like flesh-and-blood gods -- there's no way to overstate yourself. And Scorsese directs as if he were supercharged by the realization that he could work without governors, that he could give full vent to his dynamism and fly high.
And fly high he does. In terms of sheer movie mechanics, of camera style and the shape and drive of his scenes, he's outstripped the work he did in his greatest films, "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver." He uses every device at his disposal, freeze frames, slow motion, long takes, everything, to heighten our emotions. And his own. And on that level "GoodFellas" is dazzling, exhilarating, the work of a man who's delirious over his gifts, high on movies and moviemaking.
On all the other levels, as an expression of theme and character, though, it's not on an equal footing with his most fully realized work. It's shallow in the way that, for all their virtues, "Raging Bull" and "King of Comedy" were.
The main character of the story that Pileggi and Scorsese have sculpted out of the writer's rigorously detailed account is based on a real-life Lucchese family wise guy, Henry Hill, who narrated his tale after entering the federal witness protection program.
Henry, played by Ray Liotta, is drawn into a life of crime out of envy. Half Irish and half Sicilian, he sees the wise guys hanging out in front of their clubs, flashing their big fistfuls of money, parking their big cars wherever they want, unafraid of the police, of anything or anyone, and he wants to be one of them.
In 1955, when his story begins, he is an errand boy, doing odd jobs, parking cars, running through the rain to get a message to Pauli (Paul Sorvino), the neighborhood don. It's not long, though, before he moves on to more important duties, and when he gets pinched selling hijacked cigarettes to factory workers out the trunk of a car, the family greets him as a hero. With that, Henry's dream comes true. He becomes what he always wanted to be, a gangster -- better, he says, than being president.
Every detail in the first hour of the film, as Henry is drawn deeper and deeper into the life, seems vital. While Scorsese is showing us the family's tribal rituals and laying out its world, the movie is captivating; it's sociology with a touch of theatrical genius. But because Scorsese doesn't seem to know how he feels about his characters, or even how they feel about themselves, the movie doesn't build.
The film shows how, for these men, no brutality is beyond the pale. They kill people with guns or butcher knives or ice picks or with their bare hands, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not, and without the slightest trace of conscience.
Henry isn't portrayed as a killer, though, or even a very passionate crook. He's more of an opportunist; he takes what he needs without any rationalization or remorse. Yet he never seems to fully participate in the action; he floats along with pals like Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro) as they execute their capers. He helps them heist trucks, he helps them bury a man Tommy kills (then later helps dig him up when they have to move the body), and even helps them pull off the Lifthansa heist, which at that time was the biggest score in U.S. history.
But through it all, Henry is aloof. The only time he seems fully engaged is when he pistol-whips a young man who hits on Karen (Lorraine Bracco), the girl he's seeing. But Scorsese doesn't develop the ambivalence at the core of Henry's character. Henry seems repulsed by only the most monstrous behavior, such as when Tommy, who's a genuine psychopath, shoots a teenager at the club for being slow with the drinks. Morally, he's inert, and this lack of a compelling center is devastating to the film.
In fact, all the characters in "GoodFellas" seem lacking in dimension. Scorsese's development as a dramatist hasn't kept pace with his technical growth. He has the eye of a genius, and the heart, but not the brain. In creating his characters, he reduces them to their basic drives and doesn't allow us to look inside them; they are what they are and that's it. We're told, for example, that Jimmy loves to steal, but that's all we ever know about him.
De Niro's performance is a perfect mirror of Scorsese's work. It's fascinating, entertaining, sometimes astounding -- and empty. Liotta, too, seems only to inhabit the surface of his character; he gives us only Henry's veneer. Bracco is a source of dark turbulence in the film, but we don't see enough of her, and we never know whether she loves her husband or just hangs on because the money's good. Even Pesci, who gives the film's deepest, most volatile performance, can't burrow in and give us a true sense of the man he plays.
This approach avoids any facile psychological explanations or moral judgments, and perhaps by staying in neutral morally, Scorsese may have felt that he was functioning as a journalist and objectively reporting the facts, the way Pileggi did. But the director's psychological blankness feels facile in another way; it feels simplistic and reductive. And because we don't really know who these people are, we can't identify with them. This means that Scorsese can't really dramatize their stories either; he can only chronicle them. Like Henry, he seems aloof, coolly disengaged.
This dispassionate spirit matches up strangely with the director's passionate, enthrallingly hot style. The only real drama is in his technique, in what this dervish moviemaker is going to put on the screen next.
Scorsese's virtuosic staging isn't merely decorative. In one scene he has Henry take Karen into the Copa, marching through back hallways like a visiting potentate, slipping tips to everyone, winding through the kitchen and out to the maitre d', who takes them to a table right up front -- all in one long, mesmerizing take. And all the while, as Michael Ballhaus's camera pulls us deeper into the club, you can feel Karen being drawn deeper under Henry's spell, into the life. It's a perfect shot, compressing an amazing amount of information into a brief few minutes of film. And "GoodFellas" is a movie full of this kind of brilliance -- perfect moments. But even while you're marveling at it, you're distracted because you don't know what to make of it.
GoodFellas, at area theaters, is rated R and contains scenes of graphic violence, obscenity and drug use.