Weeks before Goodfellas, Nora Ephron looked to mob informants for laughs

Weeks before Goodfellas, Nora Ephron looked to mob informants for laughs

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another, we look back on films about new starts in life.

My Blue Heaven (1990)

My Blue Heaven is the kind of genial mobster-comedy in which witness protection represents a chance to restart a life of leisure racketeering, rather than an occasion for intense paranoia and crippling isolation. But as lightweight as this 1990 comedy is, screenwriter Nora Ephron also makes sly jokes out of decamping dirty, exciting, disreputable New York (remember: 1990!) for sunny, anonymous California. Ephron is operating in a more overtly comic, rather than twinkly romantic, mode: She writes a New York mobster who actively misses the city’s hostility, and who commits crimes less out of malice than a desire for familiarity. No prizes for guessing that he’s eventually charmed by small-town life; even a committed New Yorker like Ephron can’t send her hero running screaming back to the big city.

In what was initially—and perhaps accurately—decried as miscasting, the goofball mafioso, Vinnie, is played by Steve Martin. Even with hair shocked up and dyed black, he’s not the most convincing Italian-American goombah. But the movie lets Martin start over, too, with a role unlike any he’d done before, and it contains some of his best physical comedy—not slapstick, but the way he moves his body like a lost (and smoother) Festrunk brother. Martin is paired with staid FBI agent Barney (Rick Moranis), who looks after him in the hope that he’ll get noticed for more high-profile assignments. (“I wanna wear a windbreaker,” he says wistfully about his desire for more glamorous work.) Vinnie, of course, teaches Barney to loosen up—they share a delightful meringue scene—and Barney teaches Vinnie… well, to not be quite as much of a criminal lowlife? It’s not really clear how much Vinnie has learned, or when he learns it. But his character is so cheerily manipulative that the slight imbalance in his relationship with Barney has a loopy, off-kilter charm. However briefly, My Blue Heaven gives creaky material about wacky mobsters and uptight nerds new life.

Availability: My Blue Heaven is available on DVD—beware the prevalence of full-screen discs—to rent or purchase from the major digital services, and through Netflix’s disc delivery service.