Comparative Review: Goodfellas (Scorcese, 1990)

Still from the movie Goodfellas

Reading critic after critic compare The Wolf of Wall Street (usually unfavorably) with Goodfellas, I felt I had to see the earlier movie for myself. It took me half a year, but I finally watched it this past weekend. And now I understand how deliberate the similarities are, from the excessive use of voiceover narrative to the moments when the characters directly address the camera to the borrowing of a “true life” script, even the contrast of a squat, dark-haired friend (who takes everything a little too far) with the tall, dashing (anti-)hero.

Goodfellas features Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, a half-Italian, half-Irish gangster who, as a youth, begins as a stooge in the neighborhood outfit led by Pauly Cicero (Leonardo DiCaprio fans will recognize actor Paul Sorvino as Juliet’s father in Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet). Hill is in love with the mafia lifestyle–the cars, the women, the entertainment, the money (of course), the status–but not, apparently, with the killing. Though his good friends Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (played by one of the most heartless bad guys out there–remember Home Alone?–Joe Pesci) seem to relish the violence, for Hill it is a necessary evil, and sometimes not even that necessary.

It is this tension (call it soft-heartedness, humanity, or weakness) that makes Henry Hill an interesting character and commands the audience’s sympathy. After all, Pauly’s crew is performing a service, is it not? A private security firm. And when they steal, who are they stealing from? The poor, innocent workers are paid off and let go. Only the rich in absentia might suffer a lost million here, a lost fur or diamond there. That’s how Henry presents it to us, at least. And he is, after all, not a hit man. Other people do those jobs, though Henry might provide an assist here and there. And when drugs come into the picture, well, it’s all just more good fun. Who’s hurt?

By contrast, the crimes of Jordan Belfort (of The Wolf of Wall Street) hit us a little too close to home. We want Scorcese to judge him, and we don’t think he does. Instead we’re shown scenes of party after lavish party, Belfort and his friends snorting coke from butt cracks, private planes, race cars, yachts, and all the while, the Great Recession fresh in our memories, we can’t help feeling the victim. But the question is: Why did Scorcese make a film so much in the likeness of his 1990 Goodfellas? Just as an homage to…himself? Or is there actually a secret indictment in The Wolf of Wall Street after all?

I think there might be many indictments in Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street–not just of the principals, though these squirmy characters don’t emerge unscathed–but also of the environment that creates them. Roger Ebert called Goodfellas the “best mob movie ever made.” That phrasing suggests that we love mob movies; we’re intrigued by badness; we want to celebrate excess. Scorcese gives us what we want, but the point is that we want it. At the same time, none of us in our rational minds would deny that the mob in real life is a “bad thing,” and these two Scorcese films are ostensibly about real life. Henry Hill is no stoic, hardened man we can admire from a distance. If we feel sympathy for him, we also feel a little disgust. If Scorcese the critic is more evident in Goodfellas, might it not be that, by drawing the explicit comparison with The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorcese is also subtly critiquing Belfort and his ilk?

That, at least, is what my husband suggests in his more straightforward way: “Watching Goodfellas made me like The Wolf of Wall Street more.”

Me: “Why?”

Husband: “Because it makes [Belfort] seem more bad.”

Maybe he has a point there.