' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Wise Guys (1986)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Wise Guys (1986)

There comes a time in every film fanatic’s life when he/she first encounters Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas" and feels his/her life change. Ray Liotta as Henry Hill declares “For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster” and boom! You're gone with the wise guys. Don’t misunderstand, “Goodfellas” is dark and brutal and goes to show how a wise guy will eventually wind up either dead or in jail (literal or figurative) but......


……it’s also glamorous and romantic, a mélange of extraordinary Italian suits and pasta dinners even when you’re in the clink and getting to avoid lines around the block by slipping in the backdoor and then getting a table right up front. I once knew someone at a small-time Iowa comedy club who got escorted to the front and set up with his own personal table. He described it as “my ‘Goodfellas’ moment.” No one describes their “Goodfellas” moment as freezing to death in the back of a meat truck.

“Wise Guys”, a comedic, mostly straight-forward change of pace for wildcard director Brian De Palma from 1986, is different. It opens with our mafia lifers, Harry Valentini (Danny DeVito) and Moe Dickstein (Joe Piscopo), in side-by-side brick homes having breakfast, respectively, with their family and their mother before shuttling out the door and off to the office which comes in the form of a restaurant where Newark crime boss Anthony Castelo (Dan Hedaya) holds court. Harry and Mo, however, are far from the glitz and glamour and brutality of Henry Hill and the other DeVito, Joe Pesci’s Tommy. When our fearful duo sits down at the bar they don’t even order drinks – at least, not in the manly sense of the word. Harry orders a hot chocolate and Mo orders an egg cream. How could you expect guys drinking hot chocolate and egg cream to, say, dump a body in the Hudson? This is Henry Hill and Tommy DeVito by way of Larry Appleton and Balki Bartokomous.

That is what I appreciated most about this film, the fact that it places its two protagonists on our level. Gangster films are so often about looking up and away and beyond. Heck, even a mob movie like “Donnie Brasco”, which focuses more on the wise guys in squalor, still has that scene on the boat in Miami Bay with the lovely ladies in bikinis (or without) and Blondie on the soundtrack. Despite the title, Harry and Moe seem more akin to a pair of low-rung, hustling insurance agents, trapped in the mechanics of bureaucracy. Not that this is necessarily bad. In one of the film’s best exchanges Moe explains that their situation really isn’t so dire. They have steady jobs, don’t they? If they die on account of the hazards of those jobs, their families are taken care of for life!

Harry, a fervent believer that everything is part of some “grand design”, does not quite see it that way. Thus, when Harry and Moe are dispatched to the track specifically to be ten grand on a specific horse in a specific race, he is overcome with misplaced karma. He has a feeling about another horse. What, he theorizes, if they bet the ten grand on this other horse going off at 5-1 odds, win fifty grand and pocket it for themselves? It likely goes without saying that Harry’s magical horse bites the dust and they lose Castelo’s ten grand and Castelo ain’t happy. But what Castelo can’t figure is why both of these lamebrains willingly take ownership of the idea gone wrong. Why are they so……loyal? So, he gives each one a gun with orders to kill the other. Who’ll blink first?


“Wise Guys” is a comedy, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily an uproarious one. It’s built on behavior and character and camaraderie. DeVito and Piscopo craft a believable rapport of two guys who love each other even while driving each other crazy, and falling further down the rabbit hole of bad decisions. We don’t root for them because it glamorizes the lifestyle, we root for them because they’re such lovable losers, the Cubs of the Mafia Leagues.

Which is partly why Harvey Keitel, who enters mid-picture, stands out. He doesn’t stand out by STANDING OUT, but rather by exuding a rich smoothness at odds with so many hijinks. And while you might think that would tip the balance of a misadventure sort of movie the wrong way, it instead works to accentuate Keitel’s aura. His Bobby DiLea is the calm, cool, collected, and elegant boss of the hotel and casino in Atlantic City where our hapless heroes take refuge. He knows Harry and Moe and Castelo from back in the day, and with the subtlest of demeanors we get the full sense of just where DiLea’s allegiance lies.

Notice, too, how DiLea is less interested in prospective mob activities than in his casinos. He doesn't want the guys after Harry and Mo staying at his place so he books them in the hotel across the street. This jives exquisitely with the final scene which comes in the wake of the requisite Big Reveal which, I strongly suspect, could not possibly be any less surprising.

And that is ok. I can't imagine anyone not wanting this ending for Harry and Mo. In "Goodfellas" we view Henry's ending as a tragedy, almost wishing he had been shot in the back of the head instead of living the rest of his life as a schnook. In "Wise Guys" we are elated that Harry and Mo are going to live the rest of their lives as schnooks.

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