You have this friend who invites you over to see his barrel of weasels. He picks up the lid, and there they are—weasels, all right, snarling, biting, devouring each other, squirming around in a muck of their own making.
After a very short while you would confirm for yourself that weasels were wretched, pathetic, disgusting, trivial creatures and, in fact, not all that interesting. The chances of your wanting to watch them for two and a half hours are slim.
But with this long film, director Martin Scorsese acts as if the vile lives of some New York City organized crime types arc worth scrutinizing. It hardly matters that the script by Scorsese and Nick Pileggi is taken from Pileggi's book Wiseguy, about a real crook now in a witness-protection program. All it says is that people can be very rotten, which—guess what, guys—is no revelation.
There's fine acting, notably by Joe (Lethal Weapon 2) Pesci as a psycho with a Henny Youngman-Napoleon complex: It's always a toss-up whether he'll tell a bad joke or shoot someone for implying that he's short. De Niro is predictably convincing as a businesslike hit man; Chuck (The Mission) Low is eerie as a hustler kept on the mob's fringes by his Jewishness, and Scorsese's mother, Catherine, nicely plays Pesci's willfully naive ma. Liotta is sturdy, though his character, Pileggi's co-author, has a self-justifying strain. Only Lorraine (Someone to Watch Over Me) Bracco, as Liotta's wife, seems misplaced, looking like Debra Winger and acting not nearly as well.
Scorsese goes for a few laughs. When Mrs. Scorsese pleads with Pesci, "Why don't you get yourself a nice girl?" he replies. "Ma, I get a nice girl every night." But mostly he shows double crosses, infidelity, brutality and no redeeming qualities. (The hoods' wives, mistresses and families are despicable too.) While Scorsese generates vivid images, he covered this ground in the superb Mean Streets in 1973. Here there's nothing to learn, nobody to sympathize with. Seen one weasel, seen 'em all. (R)