A bunch of low-level crooks behave terribly for two and a half hours.
While the subject matter, title and running time suggests a Godfather-style crime epic, Goodfellas is actually every gangster movie cliché you’ve ever heard rolled up into one long, repetitive slog. Like Vice almost the entire film is spelled out to us in a voice-over and Martin Scorsese’s keen eye behind the camera can’t make up for an unpleasant tone that revels in the violent excesses of the director at his worst.
Where the Godfather is about honour, a code of ethics and family bonds, Goodfellas is about wiseguys getting whacked and breaking each others’ balls; taking what you can get from others and giving nothing in return. Scorsese barely knows how to end a scene without an assault or shooting. Yet it possesses none of the wit of a Tarantino gangster film or the enticing arcs of Scarface, Donnie Brasco or The Departed.
Ray Liotta is good in the lead role of Henry Hill, as is Lorraine Bracco as his wife Karen, and yet the story of these unlikable people is such that it doesn’t succeed on an emotional level. Robert de Niro gives a forgettable performance as Jimmy the Gent whereas Joe Pesci’s one-note turn as angry mobster Tommy is just irritating. Samuel L. Jackson also shows up, before he hit it big, but is introduced only to be dispatched in the next scene – another arbitrary killing.
Yet in spite of how shallow it is, it’s also no fun, for all the scenes of obnoxious men guffawing. Like Michael Corleone its veneer of respectability hides an undercurrent of nastiness. I guess this cosa nostra movie just isn’t my thing.