If you’ve watched the trailer for the much-hyped “Black Mass,” you may find yourself asking two questions: First, what is that accent Johnny Depp is working? And second, why does this feel so familiar?
Depp, as real-life mob boss Whitey Bulger, banters light-heartedly with an associate about a “secret family recipe” — until he suddenly lashes out: “You spill a secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow, hmm?” Whitey says ominously. Is he joking? Or is he really going to shoot the guy?
Well, of course you know, because you’ve seen this before — just with Joe Pesci playing the heavy instead. The movie was “Goodfellas,” and in the scene that probably won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Pesci, as the murderous Tommy DeVito, is cracking up Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill and their wise-guy buddies with one hilarious story after another. “You’re really funny,” Hill laughs appreciatively. And then Tommy snaps.
“Funny how?” he demands, his voice rising while everyone looks on nervously. “Funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to f—ing amuse you?” (Obviously, there is some objectionable language in this clip, so be forewarned.)
Everything about “Black Mass” seems like a blatant rip-off of “Goodfellas” — but maybe that’s okay, because Martin Scorsese’s mobster masterpiece is possibly the most ripped-off movie of our time.
“Goodfellas” turns 25 this year, and to celebrate, a screening of the film capped off the Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend, followed by a panel discussion with its stars.
It wasn’t the biggest moneymaker of 1990; it couldn’t even beat out “Look Who’s Talking Too.” It also wasn’t the most celebrated, losing the best director and picture Oscars to Kevin Costner and “Dances With Wolves.” But it has to be one of the most imitated.
When the cast sat for an interview on Today, host Craig Melvin asked De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco and Liotta when they realized it was going to be as huge as it has become.
“Today,” Liotta responded without missing a beat.
Someone hasn’t been paying attention. “Goodfellas” has been inspiring copycats for approximately 24 years. You see it in movies that offer an anthropological look at the nitty-gritty details of life on the underbelly, maybe with a chummy voice-over to explain it all. There are the movies that lean hard on a soundtrack to establish an atmosphere. And certain technical flourishes — like the famous tracking shot that followed Liotta and Bracco through the hallways and kitchen of Copacabana.
Here’s a look at just a few of the descendants of “Goodfellas.”
David Chase isn’t shy about admitting that “Goodfellas” inspired his hit HBO show. He was drawn not just to the violence of the movie, but also the humor and the way it chronicled, in realistic and granular detail the day-to-day of mobstering. You can see it in the dark comedy of “The Sopranos,” which, like “Goodfellas,” explored the domestic side of a mafioso’s life as well as his criminal affairs.
Chase also cast quite a few “GoodFellas” alums in supporting roles, including Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico and Frank Pellegrino to name a few. He even tried to get Liotta on board, but he took a pass.
“Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”
Quentin Tarantino’s earliest movies bear more than a passing resemblance to “GoodFellas,” with their mix of humor, violence and offbeat banter among career criminals.
Tarantino may be best known for his gruesome depictions of death, but his dialogue makes almost as much of an impression. It’s within little snippets of conversation, when people make funny observations about mundane things, that we really get to know Tarantino’s characters — whether it’s Jules and Vincent’s debate over foot massages or Mr. Pink’s diatribe on tipping.
But we saw it first in “Goodfellas” (which in fairness owes a little something to “Diner” in this regard). Take another look at the wonderful and weird scene where Henry, Tommy and Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) hang out at Mrs. DeVito’s house — Tommy telling his mom he needs to borrow her butcher’s knife to, uh, cut the hoof off a deer, his mom berating Henry for being too quiet, all the men fawning over the elderly lady’s painting of two dogs on a boat. And all the while, there’s a dead body (or mostly dead, anyway) in the trunk of their car outside.
“Goodfellas” also pioneered the now-popular tactic of starting a movie in the middle before zipping back in time to give us the back story — in everything from “John Wick” to Nicholas Sparks adaptations to “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But Tarantino really took this lesson to heart, with truly dizzying temporal shifts.
Paul Thomas Anderson has said that Scorsese and Robert Altman are his professional idols. It’s obvious from the first scene of Anderson’s dramedy about the porn world. “Boogie Nights” opens with a long tracking shot that lets us follow a couple of people into a nightclub and then meet the smut industry’s bigwigs, celebs and young hopefuls through snippets of telling conversations.
The plot structure of “Boogie Nights” is also a blatant “GoodFellas” imitation, tracing the career of an aspiring kingpin over several years. Just like Henry Hill, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) meets a mentor, works his way up, tries to pull off a heist and then squanders all of his success, money and relationships through drugs.
And then there’s the vintage music, which gives the movie an emotional surge while capturing something about the era.
Credit where it’s due: Scorsese was reportedly inspired by “Jules and Jim” when he decided to use voice-over narration in “Goodfellas.” Still, the movie took that practice mainstream, leading to countless imitators — which is unfortunate because that kind of exposition rarely works. In “American Hustle,” though, it does, especially as the dual narration of Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) gives the viewer a deeper understanding of their wacky relationship.
Other similarities: Both movies focus on the real life stories of seedy individuals willing to save themselves by working with law enforcement. Both make impeccable use of music. And both begin in the middle of the story with a scene that gives us a great sense of what daily life looks like for these characters. For Henry in “Goodfellas,” it’s contending with the almost dead man in the trunk; for Irv, it’s spiffing up his comb-over to prep for a secretly recorded meeting.
There’s also the distinctive camera work and editing, all reminiscent of Scorsese, with freeze frames, slow-motion and jump-cuts between Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn rocking out to “Live and Let Die” while Irv is stuck in the front seat of a car between two thugs.
This movie managed to make the crazy nights at Studio 54 kind of boring, which is grounds for dismissal from memory. And yet, who could forget its diligent mimicry of “Goodfellas”? The up-and-comer Shane (Ryan Phillippe) narrates his ascent from busboy to bartender while cheesy disco music plays on. Heavy drinking and drugging take their toll on Shane, of course, and it’s all fun and games until the feds come calling.
“Requiem for a Dream”
Darren Aronofsky’s depressing drug drama is a much more somber affair than “Goodfellas” and most of its descendants, but the director employs a difficult technique that Scorsese perfected, which is editing a scene to give the viewer a sense of what it feels like to be on drugs. In “Goodfellas,” Scorsese’s montage to the tune of “Jump Into the Fire” perfectly conveys Henry’s paranoia as the camera cuts from his worried, sweaty face to the image of a helicopter flying overhead.
Aronofsky also uses montage to convey the feeling of heroin addiction in an even more unsettling way. The images of a baggie filled with white powder, a rolled-up dollar bill and a close-up of dilating eyes flash across the screen on repeat. And all the while, the sounds of cash registers and car alarms add to the awful sense of foreboding.
Look, once again, it’s Johnny Depp, this time as cocaine smuggler George Jung, with director Ted Demme trying to evoke some kind of dime-store Scorsese magic.
Based on a true story? Check. Voice-over narration? Check. Sprawling story that spans decades? Check. The epic rise-and-fall narrative? Check. Strategic use of classic rock? Check. Fancy camerawork? Check. Starting in the middle before jumping back? Check.
But wait, there’s more! Ray Liotta actually shows up as Depp’s dad.
We’re forgetting some other “Goodfellas” ripoffs, aren’t we? Please let us know about the rest.