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
"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
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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