Breaking Up With Goodfellas on its 25th Birthday

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Warner Bros., 1990, USA

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci


An exhausted love affair with a stone-cold masterpiece, and the dangerous psychology behind canonising great movies.

Of the twenty-three feature-length films directed by Martin Scorsese, only five are driven by the tri-pronged attack of glamorised crime, hyperkinetic editing, and screenplays consisting almost exclusively of the word ‘fuck’. Only two examples of that small collection – Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) – belong within the upper echelon of his filmography, with the others – Mean Streets (1973), The Departed (2006), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – ranking way, way outside of it. Yet this is the style most closely associated with the New Hollywood graduate, and one look at the dates attached suggests that it probably all started with Goodfellas.

And it did; nearly twenty years after his blistering but insubstantial breakthrough Mean Streets, the first of Scorsese’s true crime sagas quickly became his most revered outing, with many voting it among greatest films of the year, then of the decade, then of all time. It immortalised a type of shorthand for the director that, in reality, had always existed – playing devil’s advocate to the dark underbelly of fractured masculinity, all with a propulsive punk attitude – only it redressed it in the snazzy tux of organised crime. Before this, Scorsese had created an American nightmare with Taxi Driver (1976), an emotionally draining psychodrama in Raging Bull (1980), an unsettling celebrity satire in The King of Comedy (1983), and an absurdist underground freak-out in After Hours (1985); but the themes of those movies undoubtedly looked better in a three-thousand dollar suit, with The Crystals on the soundtrack, and the whole shebang forced down the viewer’s throat quicker than they could say “Now go home and get your fuckin’ shine box”.

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Certainly, Goodfellas is one of the greatest films of 1990, standing out in a year in which the retrofitted gangster opus appeared to thrive (see The Godfather: Part III and Miller’s Crossing). But to call it one of the greatest films by Scorsese, or of the decade, or of all time, seems unfair to just about every other movie contending in any of those races. It’s an impeccably well-structured, well-told, well-made, and well-casted story, which makes for an exhilarating and endlessly endearing 146 minutes of screen time. But Casino is all those things too, and it’s thicker, it’s more emotionally involving, has higher stakes, better performances, and stronger drama than Goodfellas. Let it be said that I’m loath to trash the twenty-five-year old masterpiece as a sacred cow, because it isn’t one. The problem is merely that receiving more acclaim than it actually needs has spoilt Goodfellas considerably.

I first saw the film at fourteen, and it felt like the best thing ever. Most people have similar experiences with it, because after all, the film is specifically engineered to dazzle through its enlivening of a real life mafia story, delivered (and, during production, advised) by a key witness of the events in question. The story itself isn’t inherently fascinating – plenty of figures rise and fall in organised crime – but it’s a charismatically narrated insight to a world most know only through sensationalist headlines. Nothing captivates audiences more than violence, or than lurid activity surviving in perfectly good health outside of the law. Simply put, Goodfellas is a stylish, mature, and artistic version of TV news, which had recently become a non-stop tabloid crime report by 1990. But since my initial commitment, I’ve developed cold feet. Everybody loves Goodfellas. It isn’t exclusive to me in any way. Complimenting it as ‘great’, or ‘a masterpiece’, or ‘the finest gangster movie since The Godfather (1972)’ just isn’t special. The majority of its admirers have said all those things and more since its release, and in an age in which it’s easier than ever to plaster your opinion across someone’s face, even just liking the film is akin to breathing, only people care way more about it. “Oh, so you’re less eager to sing its praises because everybody else always does it? Fuck you, pay me.”

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When Boyhood (2014) was released last year, the majority of its audience immediately fell in love with it before certain viewers realised that everybody else was in the same boat. Backlash features began to surface wherein critics would attempt to reason that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, mostly calling it out for “copying” Michael Apted’s Up! series. Rebelling against the general consensus is normal, mainly because cinephiles construct their identities through the films they like, but also because the constant reappraisal of certain films will mean that certain others are left behind. Indeed, Boyhood has gone down in my own estimations since my initial fervour, though not because I like it any less, but because there were many other films released in the UK last year that I’d much rather champion in place of something that already has a perfect Metascore: Ida; Stranger by the Lake; The Guest; Two Days, One Night; Blue Ruin; and Under the Skin, just to name a few. The same goes for Goodfellas: besides the fact that it simply isn’t as good as Taxi Driver or Casino, I’m hesitant to parade it as one of Scorsese’s best purely because he’s made dozens of other great films that no-one ever bothers to talk about. To this author at least, it seems a shame to crown the same Scorsese flick as everyone else when I could instead be using the same energy to order people to watch Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).

The worst part about its ascension into Film Heaven is that it was completely unavoidable; there was no way it wasn’t going to be canonised to the point where it became boring to even consider its greatness. Obviously, this is what happens with truly exceptional films, but it’s slightly disheartening when an anniversary such as this arrives without any cause for re-evaluation. Consider if you may its subversive, cathartic take on American capitalism in the wake of recession (both the 1987 and 2008 ones), but gangster movies have thrived during economic disasters since the 1930s, so Goodfellas just doesn’t possess any special relevance of its own in 2015. Furthermore, it’s a biopic, so it doesn’t make for a particularly vivid snapshot of the time in which it was made, besides the fact that it was basically counter-programming everything else in contemporary wide release.

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Celebrating the same anniversary last year, Do the Right Thing (1989) was fascinating to look at purely because its story could have feasibly happened – and in many cases, was happening – around the time it reached the age of twenty-five. The only cause for celebration with Goodfellas is its style and quality, and the fact that it out-Tarantino’d Tarantino two years before his game-changing Reservoir Dogs (1992) premiered at Sundance. Without it, we wouldn’t have such ambitious morality tales as Boogie Nights (1997) or American Hustle (2013) (though few would complain in latter case), but everyone has known that for years anyway. Goodfellas is and always will be a monumental achievement, but its overwhelming acclaim has arguably diminished much of the appreciation Scorsese deserves for his range as a filmmaker, and it has single-handedly swallowed up a whole lot of film culture in the process. Its majesty, it has to be said, has become exhausting.

So: the film is twenty-five, and it’s still perfect. “Whaddya want from me?”

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  • L. G. Ball
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