What’s Wrong With ‘Goodfellas’?

Goodfellas | Warner Bros.

Director Martin Scorsese aimed to pace Goodfellas — his acclaimed 1990 gangster buddy picture — “almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer.” Maybe that’s why some people love it. They love the innovative editing and the rollicking, relentless pace of the whole enterprise. Maybe that’s why I dislike it.

It took some time to come to terms with the simple fact that I don’t care for a film widely considered to be one of Scorsese’s, and one of cinema’s, very best. A certain feeling of shame, a feeling that if you just watched it “one more time with this or that in mind,” you might finally understand and fully appreciate what others see in the film. Many, if not most, films are deserving of a second or third watch, but no one has any sort of obligation to rewatch a film they don’t care for. I chose to watch Goodfellas again recently despite my past distaste for it more out of curiosity than anything else.

This time, rather than trying to will myself into liking the film as I had in the past, I tried to define what I didn’t like. In freeing myself from my expectations, my obligation to love a modern classic like Goodfellas, I was finally able to approach the film with an analytical eye that brought things into clarity. I can understand when Scorsese was trying to do when he created this fast-moving account of gangster life, and I can understand why some people love it for its quippy dialogue, sweeping long-takes, and scenes of sobering violence.

I won’t argue against Scorsese’s technical skill. He knows how to move a camera and how to edit his scenes together seamlessly. Some scenes could stand alone as particularly inspired music videos. The scene wherein several dead bodies are discovered, set to “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos, is a prime example. His long-takes and dolly-shots — the most famous being the scene wherein Henry leads Karen through the kitchen and into the dining area of a club wherein he knows everyone — skillfully give the impression that we’re along for the gangster lifestyle, a hedonistic life populated by colorful characters enjoying their unchecked masculinity and power while it lasts.

I think Scorsese succeeded in making “a two-and-a-half-hour trailer,” as he never really finds a way to meaningfully unite these technical flourishes into a satisfying film. It’s all meat and no potatoes — a series of montages and endless periods of narration that would be satisfying within the context of a complete film that occasionally stops for a complete scene. The fatty meat is fun at first, but it gets sickening without anything to compliment it.

Several of the film’s best scenes — whenever Joe Pesci’s Tommy flies off the handle, say, or when Karen suspects Jimmy of threatening her life — are the ones where Scorsese finally slows the pace down in order to give a scene the time it deserves. It isn’t enough, without some added context to give the audience more time to connect to the characters, their relationships and their plights. I could hardly describe Henry Hill’s personality; I only know that he loves being a gangster. That’s why I’ve never felt emotionally involved in the lives of Henry and Karen Hill or the other Goodfellas, nor have I felt I understood their various schemes, as the narration fails to explain exactly how they’re making money.

Goodfellas | Warner Bros.

Goodfellas aims to depict the seductive, hedonistic joys of gangster life, but for me, it fails even there — except, perhaps, in the early scenes showing Henry Hill as a poor child admiring the luxurious lifestyles of the wiseguys across the street. Partially, that’s because the actors are so much older than the persons they’re portraying, which robs the material of some of its young, dumb energy. Scorsese did a better job of simultaneously glorifying and condemning a lifestyle with The Wolf of Wall Street. Using a stream of relentless, often mean-spirited humor, the drug-fueled exploits of Jordan Belfort and his associates seem both deliriously fun and unspeakably vile in their hedonism. That film doesn’t have much story to it either, but it’s a series of scenes, rather than a series of montages like Goodfellas, making entire years pass into one disinteresting blur.

Ultimately, it feels more like a stylistic exercise than a complete film. Many of its sequences are masterfully made, but without a clear story or compelling characters to latch onto, they never add up to anything truly meaningful. Though I love the bulk of Martin Scorsese films, I can’t quite bring myself to like Goodfellas, and that’s OK. I’m done trying to like it, but that needn’t mean I can’t respect what others see in the film, or continue trying to understand the roots of my negative reaction to the film. It might seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget — even with the most monolithic and universally acclaimed of films, there’s a conversation to be had, one that goes beyond unanimously agreeing on something.

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf

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