Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, 1990

Goodfellas is about the life and times of Henry Hill, covering his life as a young mobster, his marriage, his time in prison, and the circumstances that led him to become an informant for the FBI.

This is the fourth time I have started to watch this movie and the second time I've finished it. I don't know why people rate it so highly; it's an interesting portrait of an era, a place, and a subculture, but it doesn't strike me as a masterpiece.

"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster," says Hill in an early voiceover. Roger Ebert reports that Hill's memory of watching the mobsters across the street in East New York is also Scorsese's: "We have never had a conversation that did not touch at some point on that central image in his vision of himself — of the kid in the window, watching the neighborhood gangsters." Perhaps part of the reason that Goodfellas doesn't do much for me is that this image has absolutely no resonance for me. To me, this movie is the story of people who do brutal things, and as a consequence give up any sense of trygghet they might have, in exchange for... for what? For an apartment with tacky wallpaper in a terrible neighborhood in Queens? For the opportunity to walk into a club and immediately be given a front row seat to see Henny Youngman? For the ability to attract a trashy high school dropout as a mistress? One of the telling scenes in Goodfellas takes place in the prison where Hill gets sent: in voiceover, he crows that as a well-connected mobster, he doesn't have to spend all his time in a cell, but lives with the other mobsters in a sort of barracks with a kitchen where they cook gourmet meals with ingredients their associates have smuggled in. His tone of voice says, "Jealous yet?" And the answer is: not so much, since I already live a cushier lifestyle owing to the fact that I am not in prison. I'm cooking a fancy meal right now and it's not made with bread that was transported in someone's rectum. (Not to my knowledge, anyway.)

In a sense, Goodfellas is a meditation on one of the questions raised by Freakonomics: if crack dealers make so much money that they're willing to risk their lives for it, why do they still live with their mothers? Take the case of the central caper of the movie, the 1978 Lufthansa heist. The people involved in robbing this airline risked their freedom and indeed their lives — both via possible police action and, as turned out to be the case, via the robbers turning on one another — in exchange for money. How much money? Say it with me, Dr. Evil: six mill-i-on dollars. That's less than 43 seconds of US spending on the war in Iraq. That's less than Adonal Foyle made to play 475 minutes during the 2006-7 NBA season. That's less than Goodfellas made in its opening weekend. And yes, inflation means that the $6 million would be worth more today, but it's not like one person pocketed the whole sum — the money was split a dozen ways. What did the crooks do with the money? One bought a pink Buick. One bought a fur coat. Soon thereafter they were gunned down by their co-conspirators. But hey, who wouldn't trade their lives for a week of driving around in a pink Buick?

In an era when the Skillings and Kozlowskis and Rigases and Ebberses of the world are being sent to jail for ripping off hundreds of millions of dollars, it's easy to laugh at these small-time crooks, people who gave up everything for a few tens of thousands. But people do tend to think that the word "rich" refers to the economic class immediately above them and many will do whatever it takes to get there, even if in the grand scheme of things it's not particularly high. It's strange: crime among the classes above us seems absurd (why risk so much for money when you're already rich?), and crime among the classes below us seems absurd (why risk so much for such a pitifully small amount?). And yet crime is everywhere, crime, crime! Which suggests that the explanation for crime is not so simple as mere acquisitiveness. Trying to understand crime as the choice of rational actors strikes me as misguided. But isn't that the case for economics in general?

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