Recently, at the prodding of Armchair Squid, I rewatched Martin Scorsese's 1990 mobster opus Goodfellas. This was going to be my chance to reconsider it. I'm a fan of Scorsese, whether from his early classics (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) or the string of early-millennium efforts (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) that seemed to revitalize his career, so watching one of his films isn't exactly a tough proposition, but I hadn't thought as highly of Goodfellas as critics tend to, including Squid, the first time I saw it. Mostly my impression was of leading man Ray Liotta, and much as Squid had been telling me, his family issues.
Seeing it again was to remember that Scorsese had done something like his most recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street, already. Wolf, if you'll remember, was criticized for glamorizing the excesses it presumably sought to present as a cautionary tale. That's what Liotta's narration does in Goodfellas, too. Even by the end of the movie, he's lamenting life in witness protection as lacking the snap he'd so eagerly embraced as a boy and subsequently lived in for the next few decades of his life. Supporting players Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci play the characters Liotta's can't be if there's to be any sympathy involved, although curiously De Niro is relatively subdued through the proceedings, as if the character knows as well as everyone else that De Niro used to be Scorsese's muse, the way Leonardo DiCaprio would eventually become. Liotta? For his first standout performance it was a tough act to follow, and he never really did. The closest he ever came was Joe Carnahan's Narc. In a way, that's all you need to know about Goodfellas, too.
Which is to say, maybe it overplays its hand a little. Maybe it lacks, say, a certain subtlety. The later film Donnie Brasco is basically a study of everything Goodfellas chose not to do. I happened to rewatch Casablanca around the same time, and that's certainly a study of what Goodfellas chose not to do, too.
Scorsese could have rubbed his gangster's itch the way he did in Mean Streets, the one where De Niro leaves his first real impression, as an obnoxious punk who's a rough edge version of the character Liotta plays. If Goodfellas is all about family, then Mean Streets is the movie it would have been if, say, the lead had been Pesci.
It's tough watching Goodfellas from the perspective of someone who admires the Scorsese of Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull, or The Departed. Like any director, like Quentin Tarantino for instance, who's always trying to help his characters make their way through impossible situations, Scorsese has a theme running through his movies, characters who maybe don't realize how much trouble they're in and barrel forward despite the consequences (but sometimes reconsider). It's harder to like the work when he errs toward the unapologetic, as he does in Goodfellas, which is exactly like The Godfather Part II but without the grandiosity.
I wish there was a moment like in American Gangster (Ridley Scott is always exploring idealism and nightmare colliding) when Denzel Washington decides to play ball with Russell Crowe, but Liotta is so busy, for the whole of Goodfellas, reveling in the life that seemed to be so carefree (except for things like bullets and dead bodies and nagging wives), even when his crew scores a major heist that in another context would have been a movie itself (Ocean's Scorsese), it's tough to even think about the life these characters (it's important to remember this is all based on real events) are actually leading, even though you never forget for a moment who they are.
What does a movie like Goodfellas say about Scorsese? Is he warning his audience or gleefully enjoying the mayhem? But it's also Scorsese and pizzazz working hand-in-hand, a little bit of narrative showmanship, the kind of experience only someone who'd done this sort of thing before and would again could get away with, and I think that's what people love so much about it. Maybe it's not an experience to be taken solely for what it is, but to be considered in the mob canon, or even the Scorsese library itself. It'll never come close to being my favorite movie, in general or among Scorsese's, but I can appreciate it for what it is. It's just one of those experiences that leaves me wishing it had done things differently. But if it had, it wouldn't be Goodfellas.