DeNiro, Liotta sparkle in grand 'GoodFellas' WEEKEND OF THE STARS

September 21, 1990|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,Sun Film Critic

I like a movie that takes a moral stand. Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas," a violent look at the authentic Mafia, focuses exclusively on the deadly tools of the trade. It makes the clear and resonant point that Italian sausage should be banned.

Before and after every hit, these swarthy, laughing tribal barbarians settle down to a hearty meal, a curly tube of dead pig smothered in glops of tomato guts, shreds of pepper, basil, oregano, garlic slices, fennel, fried onion, some Chianti, wads of bread soaked in butter. The meals look like massacres, but they send you out of the theater on a beeline to Little Italy.

In other words, food, as much as violence, is the leitmotif of "GoodFellas," and perhaps the surest way to explain both its ample delights and its strangeness of tone. To these men, food is just as meaningful as murder; they can kill and eat in the same hour, and with great gusto at each. They never heard of either cholesterol or punishment. Food and death are equally parts of life, of course; and "GoodFellas" wants to look at the Mafia as life -- or, as culture.

The movie, rich in detail, teeming with incident and character, a bit cluttered with "documentary" affectations and over-narrated, perhaps in the end somewhat skimpy in drama, is more like an ethnography than a story.

Based on journalist Nicholas Pileggi's "Wise Guy," with a script by Pileggi and Scorsese, it's an anthropology of the streets that follows the adventures of a low-level gunsel and hustler of mixed Irish/Sicilian heritage named Henry Hill over a 20-year cavalcade from boyhood errands for the neighborhood wise guys to his final enrollment, at the far end of a gaudy career, in the federal witness protection program.

Hill is played by Ray Liotta, and some people who expect more of Robert De Niro may be disappointed to learn that his is the supporting role. Liotta, however, is just fine. So scary in "Something Wild," so dewy in "Field of Dreams," Liotta is both scary and dewy in "GoodFellas." His Henry is a combination of innocence and craven amorality. He's a sychophant who puts loyalty to peers higher than loyalty to society. He loves the life and recalls the early days, the pre-drug days, as a kind of Camelot, when the Knights of the Crooked Table sallied forth into the Big Apple to enjoy the fruits of crime which nobody had the guts to prevent them from harvesting.

Liotta is the center of a mock family. His two brothers are pals Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (De Niro); their "father" is the solemn Mafia sublieutenant Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). The news here is that Pesci, known primarily to audiences from his superb comic turn in "Lethal Weapon II," is the truly frightening character in the movie.

Tommy is stone-cold nuts. Small and vain and stoked on testosterone to his eyebrows, he lives on the giddy edge of homicide. Any tiff can explode into murder; he is a lethal weapon, and when he shoots a go-fer for giving him lip in the middle of a card game, it's a terrifying, unsettling moment.

De Niro's much smarter and more controlled. When he kills, he kills for a purpose, not because he can't help it. But, as with all of them, "whacking" (the vernacular) has no moral meaning; it's done routinely, as a solution to certain business problems and by certain rules and when those rules are broken (Tommy breaks one), accounts must be settled (Tommy's account is settled).

But the movie isn't just about "crime": as an ethnography, it expands to take into consideration the larger community and Scorsese is fascinated with the world of hoods, from soup to nuts, and including spouses and children. In fact, at one point he splits his narration between Henry and his wife Karen, a nice Jewish girl played by Lorraine Bracco, who is drawn into the culture by her love for Henry and his exoticness (she likes his gun and the fact that he beats the starch out of someone who's insulted her). Her astonishment at the gaucheries of the alien Italian culture provides the movie's highest comic point.

And it is a comedy, despite the frequent episodes of stomach-churning violence. Part of the humor is the contrast between the deadpan flatness of Liotta's narration, its affectless ho-hum tone, and the vivid crimes he describes. Also, like the Mafia itself, there's a wild strain of nihilistic outrageousness to it. These guys aren't on the edge, they are the edge; they'll go to guns in a split second and from the other side of the camera, it has a wicked amusement to it. And finally, the movie sports an almost kitschy fascination: Scorsese loves the tacky furniture, the gaudy clothes, the glitter of diamonds and gold on a corpulent, stubby set of fingers.

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