That dumb-looking movie released this week, MIDDLE MEN (2010, above) is clearly--just from the preview which is all I ever want to see--modeled on the now-classic GOODFELLAS (1990), i.e. Rags to riches to rags with a male voiceover spoken in disaffected regular guy English ala "We were just a buncha regular guys, hustlin' to make a buck like everybody else." and "I mean we had 24/7 cocktail jet plane lunches, villas, private pools -- it was all there for the taking, and we f**ked it up." All this while period bling flies by in short overlapping crosscuts with slow-mo walking scored to rock or soul classics through nightclubs where everybody knows your name: "All Along the Watchtower" or "Superfly" depending on the era and the race, blurred together in one movie-length montage that indicates the editor considers this a crazy ass trip - but your mileage is bound to vary.
Off the top of my head, the Fella imitations include: BLOW (2001), LORD OF WAR (2004), to a lesser extent AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), even 2005's DOMINO, though the last basically gets it right, probably thanks to its real-life subject acting as advisor. I'm sure there are others I haven't seen, like CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, which I also saw the preview for, and remember its use of the now horribly cliche'd "Watchtower" playing over a slow mo walk around a red-lit club as Tom Hanks narrates in the "It was a time when anything could happen... and often did" vein in the preview.
The main ingredient missing, which most director copycats don't understand, is drug culture accuracy. You either know the culture or you just get the info second hand from other films, and any hep person can see the difference a mile off. TRAINSPOTTING (1996) latches into the speedy thrill of drugs that GOODFELLAS captures in its landmark awesome "big bust" day, and rides it like a bullet, but most of these imitations forget about the druggy effects of good editing and instead just copy the form -- kind of like the way those college campus-sponsored parties where you can't smoke and they don't serve alcohol, and everyone pretends like it doesn't matter and that the party's not lame and they're not losers just acting a role of party goer for each others' illusory benefit. They prefer to ignore the minutiae of the drug world they long to depict, beyond what they read in Rolling Stone, you know the issue, with Neil Young on the cover?
To narrow it down, lets focus on two GOODFELLA-wannabes that I have seen: LORD OF WAR is "fiction based on true events" which is like saying "we made 90% of it up but want you to think it's real." It's not even based on a true story book, the way, say, GOODFELLAS was based on real life mobster Henry Hill's actual memoir via Nick Pileggi, Wise Guys. BLOW--a script based on a dealer's memoir written in minimum security prison--lacks the feeling that the director has any connection with the cocaine and marijuana dealing world beyond, again, watching GOODFELLAS, probably with the zealous devotion I did, meaning watching your tape of it every day for ten years after work or school. But if you're an L.A. phony who never stepped outside the movie set bubble, your details are going to ring false, no matter how many coke parties you've cruised or how much blow your screenwriter was tooting while writing it. And both BLOW and LORD OF WAR ring as false as loudly GOODFELLAS rings perennially true.
What makes Marty Scorsese's lower rung Italian mob films work so well is no mean feat to discern: he knows the environment backwards and forwards; he grew up watching wiseguys across the street from his house. When he strays from working class Italian New York, however, he strikes out as often as he connects, i.e. his last four films with his new life partner, Leo DiCaprio (THE DEPARTED excepted, of course, your highness). If he partners with Nicholas Pileggi or Jake La Motta or some tru-baller like that Marty can make a film so authentic you go into a kind of swooning trance, but with a thug wannabe like Leo it's just the Hollywood bubble filming itself through a reflection. The film Marty needs to make would be about Leo: a drama about a once great actor squandering his romantic lead gifts in order to ape De Niro in roles that he's just too purty for.
LORD OF WAR on the other hand rests on the conceit that it's a dark political satire --it's important! 60 Minutes-style important. But I left the theater feeling ripped off -- even the little details, like Nic Cage laying out a line of coke on the leather car seat each time he drops brother Leto off at rehab; the Darfur-type arms dealer halving a payment of blood diamonds with a machete after conscience-stricken Leto blows up half the arms delivery; the Chelsea Piers 'arms convention'-- it all seems like writer-director Andrew Nicol is 'trying' to come up with funny little details to mesh into his skeleton framework, like he's quietly sneaking peaks at Robert Mckee's Story while trying to be 'true' to his half-baked ideas about arms dealing. They could have filmed Brecht's Mother Courage and been much better off, or even used it as a reference! Compared to LORD, Mother Courage is a bedrock of gritty authenticity, and it's by the man who gave Brechtianism its name. That's like saying Godard's re-enactment of Vietnam in PIERROT LE FOU is more gritty and authentic than PLATOON. It's not, but it is more authentic than the Vietnam of FULL METAL JACKET -- another film that feels like it's earned a mark of authenticity via second and third hand information.
To lay out the LORD premise: Nic Cage is a Brooklyn Russian-American diner worker who decides out of the blue he wants to get into arms dealing. Knowing nothing about it, he goes to an armory convention with his better-looking younger brother (Jordan Catelano, above). The first thing they spy are two hot models posing by a big tank, wearing camouflage short shorts. Cage goes up and tries to worm his way into a conversation with someone he recognizes as a top flight arms dealer. Next scene - Cage and brother wake up sleeping next to the hot models in their hotel room. Ta-Daa! Not only does it seem Nicol knows nothing about arms dealing, he doesn't even know anything about conventions, or at any rate, being at a convention when you're just a working class Ukrainian-American shlub tryng to break into the big time weapons dealing with no capital instead of the guy who made GATTACA (1997).
What does it matter? Cage is now an arms dealer. Later he magically has a Ukraine military General uncle anxious to unload a bunch of discontinued Russian tanks and armaments. How fortunate! Nowhere is there that kind of authentic "shop talk" you would find in, say, THE GODFATHER or THE FRENCH CONNECTION or THERE WILL BE BLOOD or any movie by Robert Altman, Howard Hawks, or Sam Peckinpah, where you soak up the strange lexicon of life on the edge. Going in to see LORD you know just as much about the international arms trade as you do coming out, presuming you've ever read a Times article on child soldiers in Africa. Hell, IRON MAN tells you more about the international arms trade than LORD OF WAR.
In the end, the GOODFELLAS difference is that Marty knows the minutiae personally - he has a keen eye for authentic Italian detail: the thin slicing of garlic for the sauce while in jail; the way a coked-up Henry gets obsessive about stirring the sauce and breading the veal: "I'm gonna cook all this... I'm gonna cook all this meat!"; the slow peripheral way his wife becomes a coke head. Or the way the snotty babysitter drug mule becomes part of the family, hanging out cutting vegetables while Henry scores the package. Or earlier, the whole whirlwind courtship of Henry and the future Mrs. Hill magically summed up in an extended tracking shot through the back kitchen entrance of a club up to the front of the stage to see Bobby Vinton. Or how each of the mob cronies is a unique character unto himself, like "Johnny Two Times, because he said everything two times."
Another way you can always tell when the filmmakers aren't Marty Scorsese is because all the mobster's clothes look like they're fresh out of the costume department, pure black, ironed and empty of lived-in detail. Nobody smokes or drinks, unless it's 'crucial' for character development, and then it's just one scene, one cigarette, one sip of a drink which is then left behind, half-full. A Scorsese character meanwhile smokes his fucking fingers are yellowed, his curtains dingy, his ashtrays scratched by careless maids.
You can tell even in bar scenes: a guy in a bar in a Scorsese film orders a drink the way a real man orders a drink, "A Cutty and watta" would be Cutty Sark (a scotch) cut with water; "gimme a seven and seven" - that's a Seagram's Seven (blended whiskey) and 7-UP, on the rocks. A guy in a movie like LORD OF WAR says: "Gimme a drink," as if the bartender magically knows what that means. Even "Gimme a beer" is total bullshit. Dude, you can't just order 'a beer' at a bar. Be specific! Has anyone ever gotten away with being so vague? Do you want a pint or a half pint, a bottle or a draft? A Bud or a Heineken? We also have 150 microbrews on tap... and if you can't answer her because all you do is watch movies in a plastic bubble, well now you're looking like a grade-A idiot, the kind all the liquor ads pitch to, the young man of means stepping into the post-21 barfly class. And how come after drinking a whole drink of presumably straight liquor your face is not flushed, your voice not slurred? Where is the music on the jukebox that makes you have to shout to be heard by the person next to you?
Perhaps part of this horrible sanitizing is the curse of the information age - computer screens take the place of night clubs and all conversations aren't at bars but on IMs. In short, as filmmakers struggle to make stories about the internet into films we can relax and know that, at least in this decade, being stuck at home in witness protection may not be so bad. We didn't have the internet when GOODFELLAS came out --a lot has changed. Marty now has Leo to steer him away from his Italian neighborhood and into the uncharted terrain of Boston accents and shadowy conspiracy, so he's out of "real" details himself. And Johnny Two Times will never get "the papez, the papez" because he hangs frozen on a hook in a meat truck for all our sins. Johnny Two Times! Come back with those papez before those papez is replaced by kindles... the kindles.
This post is dedicated to my dear buddy, David Maxwell, who introduced me to Goodfellas and thus changed my life forever - he tried to introduce me to Kindle, but I gots to hold out a little longer.