The cabal of proponents for Martin Scorsese’s most recent Goodfellas retread, The Wolf of Wall Street, dance around the central garrulousness of the film with superficially enticing claims that its engorged, laborious pomposity is tantamount to a claim against head honcho Jordan Belfort and his trying brand of indulgent charisma and hedonistic living. The claim doesn’t hold much water, although Scorsese’s intention may have been to pummel us with the initial sweat glands of living for the moment until our body’s capacity for perspiring freezes over in the thickets of hedonism. It may have been Scorsese’s vision, I might add, because that is exactly what he accomplished many years before with his tempest-as-torpor Goodfellas, a film where every kaleidoscopic camera track and exotic edit attunes us to the characters’ struggles to methamphetamine their lives straight into the hollow caves of an early grave. Over three hours, continual fluxion begets a grave chill as expending energy gives way to perpetual enervation.
So, yes, Scorsese has it in him to make a film about the perils of manic living centrifugally expanding outward until the film itself seems to crash in one itself in a firestorm of maniacal, self-fulfilling bedlam. Goodfellas is a masterstroke of this form, a rambunctious symphony played in a hypersaturated, volatile cadence, while The Wolf of Wall Street is a simulacrum of the same, an ersatz repetition of a routine Scorsese performed with greater vitality and animation twenty-five years before. It is not his masterpiece, but it may be his most sustained stylistic showpiece and display of self-immolating directorial bravura saved from the perils of superficiality by the weight of its glimpse into a life where extended kinesis cascades into psychosis. The film’s always-in-the-moment rampage throttles us until its intentional artlessness doubles back as a commentary on the terror of constant satisfaction and immediate pleasure. A bad acid trip, Goodfellas is an embodiment of chaos belying order, and a sterling implosion wherein every seemingly indefatigable shot reveals people in perpetual transience to hide the fact that they have no home in their own flesh, no life beyond the torrential downpour of romantic allusions to a gangster lifestyle that can only exist on the surface.
Within, tireless and tiresome bleed together throughout. The film moves in jubilant bursts that eventually foster something oppressive as catharsis is denied the characters and the audience, the mile-a-minute high of gangster lifestyle quickly keeling over into a perpetual paranoia without respite. The episodic nature of the screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi wisely stresses the initially frisky and ferocious beast that is the gangster lifestyle, eventually destabilized when the screenplay accentuates its own inability to rest and relax or encounter any normative flow (again, see how Wolf is an imitation, like a final spasm of Goodfellas’ death throes delayed by two decades?).
Tangents and jeremiads become structural girders for a film about men who revel in the moment and intoxicate themselves with their own showmanship, where the slip and the slide from word to word or shot to shot stresses the punch of every line and movement for men who live off of the salary of appearance. So there’s a touch of expressionism in the film (a style that would flower more fully with the following year’s Cape Fear, a vastly more superficial film that nonetheless deserves points for sheer gusto). The hustle and bustle of characters’ minds initially liberated by the Mafioso lifestyle are epitomized by the screenplay’s jerky flow from moment to moment and Scorsese’s vicious visual kinesis.
But it’s all a shuck and jive move on Scorsese’s part. A slowly encroaching dread coagulates as the screenplay’s inveterate charisma turns out of control; the liquid lifestyle main character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), initially so appealingly libidinous for him, turns gaseous as it slips out of his hands when he proves unable to find any meaningful narrative thread to bedrock his life. Scorsese’s sybaritic directing transforms into something more lecherous as the film waxes into an uncontainable, frothing carnivore before our eyes, most famously in the stream-of-consciousness May 11 1980 sequence that may be Scorsese’s single greatest achievement behind the camera to this day. It appears that Scorsese’s layover in off-its-rocker, unbalanced comedy with The After Hours stuck with him after all.
It’s easiest to designate the film’s personality shifts in Scorsese’s actors. Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro) are Hill’s idols, a fire and ice two-fister, each perched uneasily on tensions a mile high. Pesci’s performances unearths the inflection point between unhinged hysteria and unkempt rage, curdling the comic wise guy persona into something unforgiving and demonic. De Niro, a counterbalance, is laconic and suave in a way that belies a glowering, Machiavellian air underneath. In both characters, a euphoria waxes into nervousness as the Mafioso images, rather than being sterilized and overturned to reveal broken “true” people underneath, are augmented with steroids until they run over the cliff with the characters. Even Ray Liotta’s static, external acting style works like gangbusters to invoke his flaccid desire to embody a type, casting him as a vacant existential void. Meanwhile, Scorsese’s sometimes derelict treatment of women (a severe handicap to The Wolf of Wall Street) is upended by a Lorraine Bracco (playing Hill’s girlfriend turned wife) performance that marries vitriol with a perturbed frailty, both one-of-the-boys and the lone sane voices in the madhouse.
Goodfellas is no mere actors’ showcase though; it’s a perfect storm of a film. Michael Ballhaus’ classically trained cinematography subverts the baroque romanticism of the gangster picture with more primal, primary colors that emphasize the bull-in-a-china-shop pandemonium of life underneath that romanticism. Lusty, voluptuous visuals, initially intoxicants for us as well as Henry, curdle under predatory camera movements that shift from cool to prowling, sometimes in the span of a single shot. Outside of the Gonzo-meets-Joyce “May 11, 1980”, the film’s defining moment is a perilous track through a bar and into a backroom that makes you feel the distance the camera has to travel, transforming from a swelling stylistic gesture into a measured trek through shark-infested waters. In a self-reflexive vision of the film critiquing not only its content but its style, the often invisible cumbersome weight underscoring the bon vivant lifestyle of the camera is laid bare. The intoxicating superficiality of the film’s style is shot-through with the crawling terror of its own superficiality.
Simultaneously, Thelma Schoonmaker (the real star of “May 11 1980”) throws the film through a wheat thresher, reorienting the flow of scenes into a hectic, frenzied assemblage of moments that not only disorient but express a vision of experience rushing ahead of you before your very eyes. Time, a non-entity in most films, becomes a currency for Goodfellas; three hours and thirty years feel like a minute and a day as well as a lifetime. The temporal realm is wielded as a bludgeon by a film invested in how a flip of the perceptual coin can make a moment both a flash and a cavern for men and women who seem to do everything but in the end accomplish nothing.
The film feels like the deranged, damaged B-side to Coppola’s A-picture Godfather films, darkly pitched with a bilious bite and far more unscathed and scabrous because it doesn’t have to appeal to the masses as much (and, indeed, Goodfellas was something of an underdog in its early years). Scorsese would, unfortunately, spend the better part of a couple decades retreading this ground without the madcap bone-breakages that enliven Goodfellas and make it feel like a peculiar, personal rather than a scrubbed-clean cover-version (see Casino or The Departed). Length aside, this is a Scorsese film from the gutters, more indebted to the B-directors His Holiest Brow admires so much (Ray, Fuller, Laughton, and many others are all on display at various points in Goodfellas). A classic rock soundtrack suffuses the film, but there’s a punk spirit on display here not seen by Scorsese since, like he let himself go to rave and ramble at the outskirts of his mind. Even the film’s blindsiding, scabrous comedy feels like a troubling, excitingly screw-loose gesture rather than a concession to the masses. It’s an altogether iridescent film, collected and crazed in equal measure, with a tonal imbalance teetering us on a berserk knife stabbing madly at us.
It’s also shockingly self-critical. Everything nimble about it on first glance becomes shaggy on the second, and the coalition of tones corroborates the film’s expression of fast lives undoing themselves before our eyes. Thriving on repetition and even the obviousness of its own themes, Goodfellas asks us to wonder whether its snowstorm of style is actually a sea of thematic monsters worthy of treading, or just a puff of hot air. It’s an anti-gangster film because it is intimately aware of not only the superficiality of the gangster lifestyle but the superficiality of the gangster film; by carting out old hat characters like the wise guy or the hot-to-trot young hooligan looking to make a name for himself, the film reveals them to be performative caricatures we’ve all seen before. The emptiness of the film’s characters, and the fact that audiences will follow these hollow shells as long as the visuals sparkle enough, become fodder for a film where the very form bites at its own throat. It’s an extremely delicate dance that Goodfellas blows holes through by turning the waltz we all know into a spastic seizure.