By Mark Goodman
Updated October 14, 1991 12:00 PM

Joe Pesci, Vincent Gardenia

Pesci, the Oscar-winning psychotic killer in GoodFellas, plays a young man cursed to learn his father’s trade at his father’s feet. That trade? Slumlord. “What do you look for in a building?” asks Pop (Vincent Gardenia) rhetorically, answering, “Death, divorce and devastation.” Then comes the kicker. “What do you do with a building?” Answer: “Nothing.”

Pesci learns his lessons well. When he inherits his first Harlem apartment building—a jackal’s lair of broken pipes and crumbling ceilings—he ignores with a snarl the pleas of his tenants for the addition of heat and electricity and the subtraction of rats. He also ignores summonses from the Housing Authority until a dogged lawyer, Madolyn Smith Osborne, hauls him into court. His sentence: 120 days in one of his own apartments.

Pesci quickly gets to know the neighborhood. “Why do they call him the Milkman?” he inquires about a local worthy. The shrugging reply: “Because he killed a milkman.” His tenants aren’t really evil, though, just bad—and definitely out to see that Pesci gets a whopping dose of his own indigestible medicine. Like Scrooge in the graveyard, he gets a hard look at the conditions he’s wrought; within 24 hours he’s ready to throw in the dirty towel, even if it means a well-placed bribe. “When are you going to get me out of here?” he pleads with his father. “The rats have their own Jacuzzis!” Pop’s sympathetic answer: “As soon as your mother and I get back from the Bahamas.”

With that, Pesci sets off on a series of harrowing, howlingly funny rounds with his new neighbors. Whether getting himself conned into a three-on-three basketball game or lured into a party where he rocks to rap with the best on the block, Pesci carries Super on a tide of cunning wit and comic verve. True, his ferociously engaging performance owes a serious debt to Danny DeVito, right down to his slope-shouldered shuffle and even his character’s name, Louie. But Pesci goes beyond Taxi-driven antics to give the film—risky business at best—a savage social bite. The tenants get their revenge, and Pesci is redeemed.

Still, The Super doesn’t need a mantle of social conscience any more than the late Lenny Bruce did (though director Rod Daniel, to his considerable credit, really did shoot in Harlem and leave the apartment building restored). Anyway, it’s doubtful that The Super will cause any slumlord to heed the suggestion made by the kid (Kenny Blank) who follows Pesci around: “If you fixed this place up, we’d be happier—and you’d be happier too.” The film is simply a low-down, upbeat masterpiece because Pesci, like Bruce, is the kind of comic genius who grabs an audience by the neck and shakes it till everyone is reduced to hysterical rubble. (R)