Is "Goodfellas" overrated?

As the Scorsese film celebrates its 20th anniversary, two critics go head-to-head about its legacy

Published September 27, 2010 10:01PM (EDT)

Robert De Niro in "Goodfellas"
Robert De Niro in "Goodfellas"

For most viewers, Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" requires no defense. The director's sprawling gangster picture was released 20 years ago this month, and although it got beaten that year at the Oscars by Kevin Costner's western "Dances With Wolves" -- still a sore point for the director's fans -- it has been a constant presence on TV and on home video ever since. It has been quoted, parsed and imitated so regularly that its relentless pace, gallows humor and  bursts of graphic violence have passed into pop culture's DNA.  It is, by any yardstick, a modern classic.

Or is it? I recently got into an online argument about the movie with the New York-based journalist Ian Grey, who admires some of Scorsese's movies but considers "Goodfellas" overrated, shallow and in many ways indefensible, even by the morally provocative standards of the gangster film. Rather than commemorate the anniversary with yet another piece about how great and influential it is (and I personally think it's both), I thought it would be more interesting to debate the film's merits in a public forum against principled opposition. Grey does not think the world of "Goodfellas," and is happy to tell you why. 

Let the argument begin. --Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz: Bottom line: If I chance across "Goodfellas" on television, even in a butchered-for-content version, the evening is pretty much a wash. It's a very long film -- two-and-a-half hours -- but it doesn't play that way, and every frame of it is charged with energy and detail, and a rude humor that's as energizing as any of the violent sequences. It's my favorite gangster movie. And I say that as someone who's seen a lot of gangster movies and recognizes that there are a lot of examples of the form that are deeper, more elegant and more surprising than "Goodfellas." This is not Martin Scorsese's greatest film, and certainly not his most adventurous, but as a sheer display of cinematic craft as well as a compulsively watchable story filled with iconic lines and moments, few American commercial films can touch it.

"Goodfellas" turns 20 this month -- which seems a little  hard to process, maybe because there hasn't really been a time when "Goodfellas" wasn't an insistent presence in the consciousness of American moviegoers. That's not just due to the popularity of the movie itself, but the impact of its style. It was an almost entirely montage-driven film, interweaving dramatic action, music, voice-over and rapidly edited, very dynamic shots so that it truly did seem all of a piece. And an extraordinary number of subsequent films have borrowed or outright stolen from its style, notably Ted Demme's drug epic "Blow" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia."

There was never a cooling-off period in which the film could recede a bit, even be forgotten, then be rediscovered and re-appreciated. All things considered, I think this movie would have to be an early candidate for classic status, even though it hasn't been around quite long enough to become respectable -- and I say that as if it could be respectable, and I'm not sure that's really possible, given that it's such a cheerfully scuzzy movie. 

The final shot of Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito firing his gun into the camera -- an homage to the first narrative film, Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" -- says it all. With some exceptions, men with guns equals popular cinema. "Goodfellas," for all its formal intelligence and storytelling sophistication, is popular cinema; it's what it aims to be, it's what it is and it never pretends it doesn't harbor those aspirations. The music playing over that shot of Tommy -- the closing credits music, Sid Vicious' cover of "My Way" -- adds another conceptual layer. It's a cover of a song made famous by Frank Sinatra, a performer whose name conjures up mid-century images of nattily suited gangsters as well as images of romance and a high-rolling lifestyle. But the person singing the song is a punk rocker, and he's screeching "My Way" in a guttural yell. This movie is "The Godfather" gone punk. It spits in the eye of "The Godfather." That's part of what I like about it, though certainly not the only thing.

But I know you have a lot of misgivings about this movie, Ian, so let's hear them.

Ian Grey: "Men with guns equals popular cinema." This is such a depressing equation, and not because you're wrong. I recall an interview with David Cronenberg where they asked him why he doesn't show guns much and gun wounds pretty much ever, and he said (I paraphrase), "Because we know what that looks like -- what could be more boring?" I'd argue that, going by your criteria -- and my criteria! -- "Casino" trumps "Goodfellas." It has all the energy of the latter and incredible dramatic arcs and this wonderful array of visuals.

Anyway, here's my overview: Martin Scorsese is a cinema-maker of ridiculously high caliber -- think "Goodfellas'" amazing, endless one-shot following Henry and Karen from the street through the Copacabana kitchen and finally to a table at the front. And because he's working a demimonde he knows intimately, "Goodfellas" gets away with things that would sink anyone else. Those sinking things are there. Ignoring them helps nothing. And the more I look, the more I feel that the film's relentless, heartless, unexamined cynicism and nihilism stop it from being art.

From the first line, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," the film proclaims its limitations. Because Martin Scorsese does not do psychology, the best one could expect is a portrait of machismo in crisis situation -- which means brilliantly rendered violence from which the main characters learn nothing. And that's what happens in "Goodfellas," except Henry/Scorsese are bizarrely proud to have advanced as humans not one bit. Nothing matters to these characters except money and blood, and screw any rube who thinks otherwise. It's absolute nihilism. As long as you don't think about it, there's a punk rock buzz to the movie, underlined by Sid Vicious singing "My Way" at the end. These men commit violence and feel nothing. Feeling nothing, however, isn't one of the film's topics.

At the end, Henry doesn't care about the piles of corpses he has passive-aggressively accumulated. He's bummed because he can't get a good red sauce (Rim shot!) in witness protection.

As if the nihilism wasn't enough, there's the sight of Scorsese not trusting audiences to enjoy his fringe immigrant family story's wit and color and energy and allow the gangster stuff to remain a dark undercurrent. So he cynically chose to jump-start it with blood and guts, under the pretense that this was about exploring the psychological dichotomy of men who kill and yet are also loving and have families. Scorsese just used that as a setup. It’s never explored. At all. It was a con, really.

And let’s talk about Scorsese and women. Is it fair for me to say that this director isn't misogynistic, but simply utterly uninterested in the affairs of women? Mainly they're mothers, obsession objects ("Taxi Driver," "The Aviator"), love objects, whiners (Karen Hill multitasks!), whores, etc. "Goodfellas" is yet another film that’s overwhelmingly male both in its aesthetic and its worldview. At the end, after Henry finds out that Karen dumped his coke down the toilet when the feds came knocking, he screams, in multiple iterations, "Karen! How could you! Karen!" The fact that Karen kept him out of jail for at least 30 years escapes him. These damn women! Granted, the toxic machismo was worse in "Raging Bull," and five years after "Goodfellas" we'd see an even darker version in "Casino." But I was like, "Jesus Christ, Henry, hide your own dope, for Christ's sake." And later, he blames the whole bust on his female mule, the baby sitter.

My misgivings about Scorsese and his automatic approach to violence were deepened when I watched the pilot of "Boardwalk Empire," which Scorsese directed. It’s the same old thing. Maximum blood; fleshy bits; a separate light on the gore, so for-God's-sake we see it. There's no art to it. It's not realism. It's what Wes Craven would have done 20 years ago. Or what Scorsese himself did in "Taxi Driver," except there the shock of it had a purpose.

MZS: First, I cannot disagree more strongly that Scorsese doesn't do psychology. That's almost all that he does, actually -- but he does it so dynamically that we think of it as action, or as relentless visual energy, rather than as characterization, which is how we'd probably think of it if he stuck the camera on a tripod more often and just showed people talking. Every one of his movies offers a portrait of one or more profoundly screwed-up people, and "Goodfellas" is no exception.

The difference, though -- and I think this it what makes "Goodfellas" tough for some to accept as anything other than a go-go, spectacular pop film -- is that this movie, more so than "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull" or "The Age of Innocence" or other Scorsese movies, portrays a psychology that's already fixed.

The entire thing is narrated in flashback by Ray Liotta's character, Henry Hill, and he's coming at us from the perspective of a man in witness protection under an assumed identity. Although there's a marvelous moment where he gets up out of the witness box at the trial and addresses the audience directly, I feel certain from his word choice and the past-tense verbs that he's narrating this story from a point way past the end of the trial, probably sometime after he picks up the newspaper and closes the door into the camera, setting up Tommy's fourth-wall-breaking gunshots. Henry is speaking to us from the vantage point of a man who has nothing to lose anymore. He's safe from retaliation, safe from harm, so he can speak freely. And he's being honest with us. He misses the life.

One could certainly make the case that a character who doesn't change -- or in this case a portrait of an entire community whose morality, or amorality, is fixed like a stoolie's shoes in cement -- cannot possibly make an interesting movie, much less good drama. But I don't think that's true. There are basically two types of dramatic films, films about characters who grow and change over time -- "Coal Miner's Daughter," for example, or "The Philadelphia Story," or "On the Waterfront" or "Sunrise" -- and films about characters who, for whatever reason, do not change: "M," for instance, or "There Will Be Blood," or "The Player." "Goodfellas" is a movie about people who don't change. I don't think that should be considered a strike against it, nor do I think the singularly repellent nature of these people should rule out our ability to consider them worthy of fascination.

"Goodfellas" is a zoological movie, like so many of Scorsese's films -- like "The Age of Innocence" and "Casino" and "Gangs of New York," come to think of it, with their dollhouse or diorama approach to storytelling, showing you who these people are and how they lived. There's a powerful documentary influence throughout "Goodfellas," and a lot of the camerawork and visual devices (freeze frames and title cards) make that lineage clear.

I don't think the setup of the film is a con, as you put it. There was never any implicit promise that the movie was mainly going to be about the psychological dichotomy of gangsterism vs. normalcy. But I do think it gets into the dichotomy in a subtle way, one that's easy to miss because the film is so overtly exciting. There's a disjunction between what Henry is telling us he feels about the criminal lifestyle, and what's shown on-screen.

To give you just two examples, the murder of Billy Batts in the "Go home and get your shinebox" sequence, and the killing of Spider during the card game, both of which signal that the crew is about to start unraveling. Henry's narration is, as usual, rather dry. Yet both sequences cut to close-ups of Liotta that are clearly shocked, revulsed, by the violence, and by how unnecessary it was -- at least that's my reading of it. At the very least I don't think those close-ups are telling us that Henry's thinking, "Oh, what an inconvenience." That's certainly true of the reactions of Tommy DeVito and De Niro's character, Jimmy Conway, who complains in the Spider scene that he's going to make Tommy deal with burying the body as punishment.

Henry was always a bit of an outsider, and we're told that in the narration and shown that in the on-screen action, particularly the scene near the end where Henry realizes that he never would have returned from that trip to Miami alive, because Jimmy was asking him to participate in a hit, something he'd never been asked to do before. In this sense, "Goodfellas" is on firmer moral ground than some other notable films in this vein -- notably, "A Clockwork Orange," which shows us a rival gang raping a woman in an abandoned warehouse and lets the moment drag on for a while before the first-person narrator and his droogs even make their entrance.

As for the women, I've heard the argument that Scorsese is a misogynist as well as the notion that he's simply uninterested in women. I don't think either charge is true. Yes, I think he's mainly interested in the psychology of men, and their attitude toward women is central to that -- it's what fuels "Raging Bull," the jealousy and pathological insecurity and Jake LaMotta's inability to deal with it in an adult way, and being destroyed because of that fundamental immaturity.  Scorsese has given us quite a few psychologically complicated and compelling female characters from the start of his career onward: the title character of "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," Vickie LaMotta in "Raging Bull," Ginger in "Casino," Ellen Olenska and May Welland in "The Age of Innocence," to name but a few.

And Karen Hill in "Goodfellas" is one of his great female characters. She's tough and funny and full of life, and as hopelessly in love with her screwed-up husband and his money as Henry is with Karen and her Elizabeth Taylor eyes. Hell, she even takes control of the narration for a long stretch, so that you see things through her eyes. At that point it becomes her movie, and it's as interesting a movie as the one that starred Henry.

Also, one other thing: In the scene with the disposal of the coke, when Henry screams at Karen, "How could you," I have a feeling he probably figured out that she did the right thing after he'd had some time to cool off. The scene with the two of them trying to get the best deal for themselves in witness protection ("I just don't want to go anyplace cold") shows a tightly bonded couple. They're a unit.

Plus, when he screamed at her, he was coked to the gills and so was she, so I don't think we're supposed to take that as representative of people in their right minds, not at all. In fact, the film's portrait of how drugs, to paraphrase Paulie, turn people's minds into mush is one aspect that does deserve to be called moralistic. "Goodfellas" is the greatest anti-drug movie to come out of Hollywood in the last 20 years, with "Requiem for a Dream" being a close second.

And do you really think Scorsese has no particular attitude toward what he's showing us in "Goodfellas"? The violence and drugs and gangster behavior, I mean? I certainly got that impression watching "The Departed," which, more so than any other Scorsese movie, felt like an assignment to me, something he was doing to get his box-office average up. But not "Goodfellas." That film strikes me as very personal, as personal as "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull" or "The Age of Innocence," which is as much a study of a man's obsession with and mistreatment of women as any of his more violent movies. Scorsese's near-death from cocaine abuse in the '70s is as much a subject of "Goodfellas" as gangsterism. I think "Goodfellas" is also a comment, a very sharp comment, about the mentality Americans had about money in the '80s -- when for a while it was all about making it, and it didn't matter how you did it or who got hurt.

 Ian Grey: I also want to point out here that Scorsese’s not as much of a hardcore filmmaker as you think he is -- not in "Goodfellas," anyway. He protects himself in his choice of protagonist. Henry never kills anybody on-screen, and the movie makes it clear that he’s not truly in the middle of things, that for various reasons the bosses are protecting him from having to take part in the worst of it. But in the scene at Tommy’s house, where Martin Scorsese’s mother has her cameo fixing the guys dinner and Billy Batts is outside bleeding to death in the trunk, Henry is laughing with the others over the Batts being a goner. In his heart, Henry is as much of a murderer as they are. But in the film he’s just an accomplice to murder. I'd think that, as a punk-rock gangster hero, he'd be super-bloody, à la Brian DePalma’s "Scarface." But Scorsese doesn’t want to lose mainstream viewers. He has made a cynical calculation to keep Henry from literally getting his hands bloody, to let other major characters do the wet work on-screen. But Henry is as rotten as the rest. And he's our hero.

But I don't think the nuanced psychology you talk about really interests Scorsese. I think explosive psychology interests him. I watched "Raging Bull" the other night and the scene where Jake LaMotta hits his wife, Vicky:  Kee-RIST. Yeah, it's cinematic, but you want to throw up. And what has it taught me about about LaMotta’s psychology? That he's violent. I already knew LaMotta was terrifying. Do we really need to see him smash his wife’s face? Really? And the other night, again, in "Boardwalk Empire," another louse hitting another woman, which in turn justifies another guy bloodily beating the crap out of him. It's Pavlovian by now.

The violence in so many Scorsese films is crazy over-the-top all the time, for no reason, and we always see as much of it as an "R" rating will allow. And my basic question is, "Why?" What do we as viewers get out of this, except a sense of what constitutes state-of-the-art gore in a mainstream film? Does it, more often than not, have to come down to explosive violence in a Scorsese movie? Is that the only currency in his psychological world?

MZS: I don't think so, not at all. "The Age of Innocence," "Kundun," "Bringing Out the Dead," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "Shutter Island" and his many documentaries, including "ItalianAmerican," all testify to this.

It just so happens, however, that the movies with explosive violence tend to make the biggest critical or popular impact. Paul Schrader, Scorsese's screenwriter on several films, once said that with certain exceptions, in order for a film to have a worldwide critical impact and to make at at least a small dent in the moviegoing consciousness, it had to have sex, violence or both. He wasn't talking about his aesthetic preference, he was talking about the reality. I think Scorsese's aware of that fact. And I think the popularity of Scorsese's violent films compared to his less violent or nonviolent films, which were equally and sometimes more meaningful to him as an artist, suggests that this assertion is correct. We also shouldn't forget that these films are projections of, and attempts to deal with, Scorsese's own psychology, and I think he does so very honestly.

Regarding the violence, though, there's almost always a bookend showing the violence from a more contemplative, detached angle. Think of the overhead pan of Travis Bickle's rampage in "Taxi Driver," or in "Goodfellas," the way that he shows us Tommy's murder of Stax twice. The first time we're seeing the gun blow his brains across the room. Then we see the aftermath overhead from a static, God's-eye-view shot, very dispassionate. Then he replays the shooting again from a low angle, Joey firing at Stax, with Stax out of frame. A couple of drops of blood hit Tommy's face and he doesn't flinch at all.

I'd say that shot of Pesci's unemotional face as he murders Stax is as effective a refutation of the idea that Scorsese is just getting off on violence as any of my written observations could provide. It's not that he's anti-violence. He gets excited by violence. And as he said in a recently published, wonderful GQ oral history of "Goodfellas," he grew up being intimidated by and worshiping these bigger, tougher guys who went on to become criminals, and if he hadn't been an asthmatic little runt, he might have tried to be one of them. That pretty much sums up all his films about masculinity and violence, I think. That's the past that he's trying to make sense of. That's why he makes violent movies.

I also must say that I find it curious that you'd champion "Casino" over "Goodfellas," given your specific objections about violence and morality here. "Casino" is the movie that shows us a loving close-up of a man's head being crushed in a vise until one of his eyeballs pops out. To me that's the least necessary violent moment in any Scorsese film. It really does suggest that he is, to quote a Scorsese-hating friend of mine, "Schwarzenegger for intellectuals," more so than anything in "Goodfellas."

Ian Grey: What I like about "Casino" pretty much entirely boils down to Ginger. (There are other things, but if I listed them we'd be here all day talking about "Casino.") That movie is two-plus hours of Sharon Stone taking no crap from De Niro playing yet another hyper-violent Scorsese brute, then falling, of her own tragic accord, into a dead pit of dope and liquor. Scorsese’s visuals are elegant here in the Ginger scenes, but mostly non-showy. If I think of Scorsese at all behind that camera, I imagine him feeling terrible for her.

Even though I accept your arguments for their intellectual vigor, the images overwhelm them. Scorsese makes terrific films filled with sadistic bastards whose violence is shown in loving detail. There isn't a prospective gore scene to which he's said, "Naw, too bloody." How can you square your theories about Scorsese's violence and his feelings about arrested masculinity when you’re watching that scene in "Goodfellas" where De Niro and Pesci beat the living crap out of Frank Vincent while a jukebox plays the lilting strains of Donovan's hippie anthem "Atlantis"?

Yes, you're right when you says Scorsese's protagonists are screwed-up. But their pathology is frozen. Scorsese’s men do not address their sicknesses, not in any way that I'm aware of. They tend to dig in, to get sicker. I don't see such films as psychologically acute, just films that are about screwed-up people. (Stray thought: I wonder if this comes from making documentaries, where you look but do not go deeper?)

You say that Henry is narrating from an emotionally "frozen" state in the witness protection program. So unlike most of us, who would narrate psychological ups and downs and changes, Henry, who always wanted to be a gangster, has experienced a life that has been a straight line, from his early teens through witness protection? This might be true, and if it's true, it would be part and parcel with Scorsese being the anti-Joss Whedon, of creating -- no, insisting on -- characters with no apparent inner life. But then you come up against "Shutter Island," which is almost nothing but the inner life of its protagonist and may, because of some new empathy, signal a wondrous third act for Martin Scorsese's career. That is, if he can just stay away from "Boardwalk Empire" and its damned gangsters.

As for "Goodfellas," I first saw it at Loews 19th Street in Manhattan. The post-film buzz was huge. It was like a punk rock buzz. But because I had been a first wave punk rocker, I knew those buzzes were not to be trusted. And here I want to add something I've not seen addressed before: what a shock to the system the violence was when "Goodfellas" first came out. By that I mean people were not used to seeing this level of gore outside a Wes Craven movie. And they certainly were not used to seeing it created by characters we were, on various levels, identifying with. It created a sort of spectator whiplash. One minute Joe Pesci was a hoot, the next he was a bloodthirsty sociopathic killer.

Anyway -- after 19th Street, a lifelong relationship began. And what were initially small annoyances became outright disturbances, and here I am having this chat with you. I guess one upside of "Goodfellas" is that without it, we wouldn't have Showtime’s "Dexter," an infinitely more complex work on almost every level except visually. The things I loved about "Goodfellas" -- the wedding where every man is named Peter or Paul and all the women Marie;  De Niro getting pissed about the silencers not fitting the guns; the guys making a nice pork sauce in prison; even Henry beating the crap out of that douche bag that hurt Karen -- I still treasure. The rest I reckon I'll be dealing with from different angles, as long as I'm around to reckon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a freelance critic and film editor and the founder of the online publication The House Next Door. He has written for The New York Times, New York Press and other publications. His video essays on films and filmmakers appear regularly on the web sites of The L Magazine and the Museum of the Moving Image.

Ian Grey is a freelance writer living with his partner and three cats in New York City. His most recent feature was published in Baltimore City Paper and dealt in-depth with the Dutch Satanic not-metal band The Devil's Blood.

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