If you’ve watched the trailer for the much-hyped “Black Mass,” you may find yourself asking two questions: First, what is that accent Johnny Depp is working? And second, why does this feel so familiar?
Depp, as real-life mob boss Whitey Bulger, banters lightheartedly with an associate about a “secret family recipe” – until he suddenly lashes out: “You spill a secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow, hmm?” Whitey says ominously. Is he joking? Or is he really going to shoot the guy?
Well, of course you know, because you’ve seen this before – just with Joe Pesci playing the heavy instead. The movie was “Goodfellas,” and in the scene that probably won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Pesci, as the murderous Tommy DeVito, is cracking up Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill and their wise-guy buddies with one hilarious story after another. “You’re really funny,” Hill laughs appreciatively. And then Tommy snaps.
“Funny how?” he demands, his voice rising while everyone looks on nervously. “Funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to (expletive) amuse you?”
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Everything about “Black Mass” seems like a blatant rip-off of “Goodfellas” – but maybe that’s OK, because Martin Scorsese’s mobster masterpiece is possibly the most ripped-off movie of our time.
The movie turns 25 this year, and to celebrate, a screening of the film capped off the recent Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend, followed by a panel discussion with its stars.
“Goodfellas” wasn’t the biggest moneymaker of 1990; it couldn’t even beat out “Look Who’s Talking Too.” It also wasn’t the most celebrated, losing the best director and picture Oscars to Kevin Costner and “Dances With Wolves.” But it has to be one of the most imitated.
When the cast sat for an interview on “Today,” host Craig Melvin asked Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco and Liotta when they realized it was going to be as huge as it has become.
“Today,” Liotta responded without missing a beat.
Someone hasn’t been paying attention. “Goodfellas” has been inspiring copycats for approximately 24 years. You see it in movies that offer an anthropological look at the nitty-gritty details of life on the underbelly, maybe with a chummy voice-over to explain it all. There are the movies that lean hard on a soundtrack to establish an atmosphere. And certain technical flourishes – like the famous tracking shot that followed Liotta and Bracco through the hallways and kitchen of Copacabana.
Here’s a look at just a few of the descendants of “Goodfellas.”
“The Sopranos”: David Chase isn’t shy about admitting that “Goodfellas” inspired his hit HBO show. He was drawn not just to the violence of the movie, but also the humor and the way it chronicled, in realistic and granular detail, the day-to-day of mobstering. You can see it in the dark comedy of “The Sopranos,” which, like “Goodfellas,” explored the domestic side of a mafioso’s life as well as his criminal affairs.
“Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”: Quentin Tarantino’s earliest movies bear more than a passing resemblance to “Goodfellas,” with their mix of humor, violence and offbeat banter among career criminals.
Tarantino may be best known for his gruesome depictions of death, but his dialogue makes almost as much of an impression. It’s within little snippets of conversation, when people make funny observations about mundane things, that we really get to know Tarantino’s characters – whether it’s Jules and Vincent’s debate over foot massages or Mr. Pink’s diatribe on tipping.
“Goodfellas” also pioneered the now-popular tactic of starting a movie in the middle before zipping back in time to give us the back story – in everything from “John Wick” to Nicholas Sparks adaptations to “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But Tarantino really took this lesson to heart, with truly dizzying temporal shifts.
“Boogie Nights”: Paul Thomas Anderson has said that Scorsese and Robert Altman are his professional idols. It’s obvious from the first scene of Anderson’s dramedy about the porn world. “Boogie Nights” opens with a long tracking shot that lets us follow a couple of people into a nightclub and then meet the smut industry’s bigwigs, celebs and young hopefuls through snippets of telling conversations.
The plot structure of “Boogie Nights” is also a blatant “Goodfellas” imitation, tracing the career of an aspiring kingpin over several years. Just like Henry Hill, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) meets a mentor, works his way up, tries to pull off a heist and then squanders all of his success, money and relationships through drugs. And then there’s the vintage music, which gives the movie an emotional surge while capturing something about the era.
“American Hustle”: Credit where it’s due: Scorsese was reportedly inspired by “Jules and Jim” when he decided to use voice-over narration in “Goodfellas.” Still, the movie took that practice mainstream, leading to countless imitators – which is unfortunate because that kind of exposition rarely works. In “American Hustle,” though, it does, especially as the dual narration of Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) gives the viewer a deeper understanding of their wacky relationship.