One Single Thing: Goodfellas

Instead of writing reviews of entire movies or TV shows or albums or songs, I’m going to focus on a specific scene, or line, or a tiny bit of something that made me think, or laugh, or feel, or whatever. This is One Single Thing.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” It’s an iconic start to a movie. It’s one of the most famous movie quotes of all time. And as much as it is quoted, it is almost as often misunderstood.

Goodfellas is a movie that gets a lot of shit. It gets a lot of shit because, like many of Martin Scorsese’s movies, it gets misinterpreted by people who think the main characters it portrays are cool. And they think that these characters are cool because the characters themselves think they are cool, and they act cool, and that seems to be all the people who watch these movies pay attention to. The fact that the characters’ ultimate demise is a “you reap what you sow” lesson and basically the whole point of the movie gets lost on them.

And then these types of people talk about how awesome the movie is. And then other people overreact and say the movie isn’t awesome because the first people misinterpret it. And there’s this whole other group of people who think a movie can’t be good if the people the movie portrays aren’t good. And it’s a whole big mess. But the movie is awesome.

The thing that stood out to me on a recent rewatch of the movie was a line that comes directly after Henry Hill’s opening declaration. Here’s what it is:

Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an afterschool job I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in the neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.

Look at that. Read it. Read it again. It’s pretty much the opposite of “dream big.”

They did whatever they wanted.

They double-parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket.

They played cards all night and nobody ever called the cops.

This is the big-time awesome stuff that Henry Hill just admitted to thinking was better than being President of the United States.

This is a child. He’s having a child’s fantasy of “nobody can tell me what to do” that extends into his adulthood. He’s Kevin McAllister in Home Alone yelling “I’m eating junk and watching rubbish. You better come out and stop me!” but instead of him being home alone because of a classic comedic mishap he’s home alone because he’s a full-grown adult.

He’s a loser. And he’s a loser from the very first moments of the movie. He feels stuck in nowheresville and he dreams of getting out but his imagination is so non-existent the best he can dream up is what he sees right outside his window. And at the beginning, it’s not his fault. He’s a kid. His childish fantasies are excusable because he’s a child. Then, you know, he joins up with the gangsters and gets caught up in their world, and indoctrinated, and maybe it’s never fully his fault (but still somewhat his fault.)

Maybe he never really had a chance. Maybe it’s the system. But it’s also his fault for never growing out of it. For getting attached to a group that accepted him in so they could mold him and get him to think he was important to them and using him up and spitting him out. You know that Groucho Marx quote where he said he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member? Maybe he had a point. Maybe Henry should have listened.

When I was a teenager and saw Goodfellas for the first time I definitely liked it because I thought it was cool. The line I loved the most in the opening monologue was “Pauly may have moved slow, but that’s only because Pauly didn’t have to move for anybody.” I thought that shit ruled.

I saw guys being dudes and having a good time and drinking and partying and doing whatever the fuck they wanted and was like “hell yeah, what if life could be like that.” And when it all fell apart my thoughts were “why couldn’t they just all stick up for each other and have each other’s back? Then it would have all been ok.”

The lesson I took from the movie as a young, dumb teen was “just be good friends to your bros.” I guess that’s a better lesson that “do whatever you want and fuck everybody else.” But I failed to see that the problem started at the very beginning. At selling yourself short. At not dreaming bigger. At not looking far beyond the cabstand for something greater than where you were and who you were around to inspire who you could become.

It’s all there, three lines into the movie. Problem is, the first line sounded so damn cool we got distracted.

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