The Underrated Steve Martin Comedy That Is Basically a Sequel to Goodfellas


For Henry Hill, the appeal of becoming a mobster is simple. “They weren’t like anybody else. They did whatever they wanted,” he explains in the famous monologue at the start of Goodfellas. “They parked in front of hydrants and never got a ticket. When they played cards all night nobody ever called the cops.”

Hank might also add to the list that they get the best deals at the grocery store, something that happens to wiseguy Vinnie Antonelli in the comedy My Blue Heaven. Noticing an unattended pricing gun, Vinnie gives himself a huge markdown on a bunch of steaks. When the cashier totals the haul at less than $20, he’s too impressed with the $100 bill Vinnie handed him to call foul. Even the manager only stops Vinnie to give the former mobster a comment card, saying nothing of the steal of a deal that just occurred.

Hill doesn’t realize it, but the life he outlines at the start of Goodfellas perfectly describes Vinnie in My Blue Heaven. Vinnie, played with ridiculous accent and towering hairdo by Steve Martin, is indeed, to use Hill’s words, “somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies.”

And there’s one reason for the similarity. Because Vinnie Antonelli is Henry Hill. Sort of.

From Wiseguy to Wild and Crazy Guy

In the book Wiseguy, reporter Nicholas Pileggi tells the story of Henry Hill, a real world mafioso who turns into an FBI informant. The story traces Hill’s lifelong fascination with the mobsters he saw around the New York neighborhood where he grew up, which leads him to start working for the Lucchese crime family. During his years in the mob, Hill participated in everything from arson to fixing basketball games to murder. In 1980, Hill feared that his former associates planned to kill him, so he agreed to become an informant.

As anyone reading this article knows, Hill has a fascinating story, fascinating enough to catch the attention of Martin Scorsese. Co-writing the script with Pileggi, Scorsese adapted Hill’s story into Goodfellas. In Scorsese’s hands, Hill’s story became a slick, thrilling movie about hubris and the inevitable downfall of its main characters.

But Scorsese wasn’t the only filmmaker taking interest in Wiseguy. Pileggi’s wife Nora Ephron also wanted to make a movie about Henry Hill, albeit in a very different vein. While Pileggi worked with Hill to write Wiseguy, Ephron developed her own take, less about his criminal glory days and more about his fish-out-of-water lifestyle in the suburbs, under the watch of witness protection.

The idea came to Ephron while answering the phone nearly every night Hill called to chat with Pileggi about their book. Apparently, Hill was telling Ephron such exaggerated and wild stories about his boredom in the heartland that she decided to get a pen and start doing her own bit of writing.

By 1987, hot off of the excellent Silkwood and the not-quite-as-excellent Heartburn, Ephron pitched My Blue Heaven to Goldie Hawn, hoping to convince the star to play assistant DA Hannah Stubbs. Hawn took an interest, but left after a writers strike delayed the project, retaining only a producer credit while leaving the part for Joan Cusack. Around the same time, Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally started gaining heat, which allowed her to attract big names for My Blue Heaven, including at one point Arnold Schwarzenegger—at least until Arnie chose Kindergarten Cop instead.

After much wrangling, Ephron eventually got Steve Martin to play FBI agent Barney Coopersmith and Herbert Ross to direct. But when Martin read the script, he realized he wanted to play the Hill role instead. So Martin switched to Vinnie, and Rick Moranis came on as Barney, and the comedy was made.

Goodfellas became one of the greatest movies of all time, but before it was even released, My Blue Heaven beat it to theaters by a month and was received as a likable, if middling, comedy. And yet, the two movies complement one another.

Hill Goes to Heaven for His Sins

At first glance, the two films have nothing in common. Indeed, it’s hard to think of two filmmakers as unalike as Scorsese and Ephron. And yet, the two have remarkable thematic continuity.

Yes, discussion around Goodfellas still focuses on its sharp direction and shocking violence, and with good reason. The long, complicated oner that follows Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the back entrance and to the floor of the Copacabana still sets the standard for bravado filmmaking. Joe Pesci’s take as the brutal and fiery Tommy DeVito still terrifies.

But, as is so often the case with Scorsese discourse, the focus on these elements misses the larger point. Against all the flash of Hill at his peak are the grim reminders of his stupidity and the emptiness of his lifestyle. In an utterly brilliant, layered performance, Liotta plays Hill as a boob, a knucklehead whose vapid quest for power costs more than he realizes. Consider the transition he makes when Hill goes from cackling at DeVito’s story to fumbling to find the right answer when DeVito takes offense. Look at the way he goes from flashy and confident during the final address to the camera to looking like a depressed dad getting his paper from the stoop. Goodfellas presents Hill as, at best, a fool for spending his life dreaming about becoming a gangster.

That treatment of Hill creates continuity between Goodfellas and My Blue Heaven. Martin goes as broad as possible in portraying Vinnie. His take has as much in common with real Italians as his Saturday Night Live character Georg of the Wild and the Crazy Guys sketches has with real Eastern Europeans.

When the aforementioned grocery store manager asks Vinnie if he needs anything, Martin answers, “Ah-Roo-Goo-Luh … it’s a veg-uh-tuh-bull.” Vinnie tries to show off for Barney by pointing in the air and bobbling his head as he sings “New York, New York.” He waves his hands around, pointing obnoxiously at Barney as he gets the agent to forgo gray flannel suits for sharkskin and Italian leather.

Of course, Ephron and Ross have the same goal as Scorsese. They want to make a crowdpleasing comedy, one that focuses on Barney’s love story with Hannah and relegates Vinnie to obnoxious sidekick in a middlebrow comedy. But by reimagining Hill not as a wiseguy but as the comic relief, My Blue Heaven achieves what not even Goodfellas managed. It truly makes Hill into less than a nobody in a neighborhood full of nobodies, a guy that neighborhood nobodies politely ignore.

The post The Underrated Steve Martin Comedy That Is Basically a Sequel to Goodfellas appeared first on Den of Geek.

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