When I set up my 2020 Blind Spot list I knew immediately I wanted to include something from director Martin Scorsese. He not only caused a lot of ruckus with his ridiculous and out of touch comments about superhero movies not being ‘cinema’ last year but then he achieved great critical acclaim with his film The Irishman. I famously did not care for this Oscar nominated film, and I also hated his film before that Silence, so I began to wonder if maybe the famous director and I simply don’t mix very well (I did like Hugo and The Aviator so there’s that)?
Anyway, I knew I wanted to give his other mobster movie, Goodfellas, a shot this year to see what I thought. Now I have seen it, and I’m happy to say I liked it. It’s not a top-tier film for me but definitely entertaining and far better than The Irishman in every way. I still prefer the gravitas and messaging of The Godfather over this film but I can see why it has its ardent fans.
Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill a real life mobster in 70s and 80s who works and serves the family despite not being a full-Italian ‘made’ member. We start out the film with Henry as a teenager dazzled by the lifestyle and family-connection of organized crime. He gets taken under the wing by a caporegime named Paulie played by Paul Servino. Joe Pesci plays a violent and erratic man named Tommy Devito and Robert De Niro plays a leader of the group named Jimmy Conway.
The reason I liked this so much better than The Irishman is the characters are all more dynamic. My problem with Robert De Niro’s character in The Irishman is his come to Jesus moments come too late in the narrative. For 80% of the movie he is perfectly happy being a soldier for the mafia and someone who simply follows orders isn’t interesting for a film, especially a long film.
In contrast, Henry has many moments where he bucks against the system, especially in the 2nd half where it becomes more of a heist movie than a mafia film. He even challenges orders in his personal life with wife Karen and mistress Janice/Sandy. This makes him an interesting character. We want to root for him because he is our protagonist, but he’s such a sleazy guy that it becomes difficult. Such conflict is cinematic and entertaining. It also doesn’t hurt that Ray Liotta does a very good job playing Henry so you both want to hang out with and smack him at the same time.
Unlike The Godfather, Goodfellas doesn’t attempt to teach us lessons through the insular society of the mob. It’s not an allegory to society at large or a treatise on group behavior and loyalty. It’s just Henry’s story- a biopic if you will, with all the highs and lows we expect from that genre. It is greatly aided by witty and engaging dialogue by screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. It clips along and stays free from both exposition or over-narration.
As far as flaws it still feels self-indulgent at times. Scenes are stretched out longer than they need to be and certain sequences are repeated that provide no real addition to the plot. For example, we see multiple scenes with them laughing it up at the comedy club in the beginning of the film. One scene is fine and establishes the juvenile nature of these men; however, I didn’t need to see it again and again. Same with scenes with the drug-trade later in the movie. We get the idea the first time. We don’t need scene after scene of them getting blow. It’s almost like Scorsese lacks confidence in his scenes so he has to repeat them again. (Come to think of it one of the things I hated in Silence was the repeated torture. He would literally show a scene of torture and show that exact same scene again in case we didn’t get it the first time. No thank you!).
Goodfellas is also very well edited and the production values are all top rate. It doesn’t feel dated in any way. It could be released now and hold up (honestly better than The Irishman with its distracting special effects). I also enjoyed the cinematography and music choices throughout.
If you can handle a hard R rated film for violence and language I recommend giving Goodfellas a watch. If you do, you will find a well-told story about a complex character in the form of Henry Hill. It’s got a sharp script and good performances all around, which makes it very entertaining. I can definitely see why it is a favorite of those who love the gangster genre.
What do you think of Goodfellas? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section
7.5 out of 10
On another note I can see why so many compared Hustlers to Goodfellas. They have a very similar structure especially in the last half of the film and have the same type of repetition and character beats.