In what’s possibly my most unpopular film opinion, I don’t like the 1990 classic Goodfellas. Here’s why, and how I’ve come to be okay with that.
Unpopular opinions. We all have them, and yet we all react with shock and/or scorn when we hear someone else’s. I’ve definitely shared plenty of my own “hot takes” when it comes to film, both old and fresh. But if you’ve seen my listed Letterboxd rating for a certain 1990 gangster classic, you may have been made privy to what I consider my single most unpopular movie opinion: I don’t like Goodfellas. In fact, when I saw it for the first time, back in 2018, I absolutely hated this movie, and I could not even remotely understand how it could be widely considered one of the best films of all time. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I refused to check out any more of Martin Scorsese’s movies for a couple of years afterwards.
But that was over five years ago. While I wouldn’t call myself a radically different person from back then, I’ve definitely seen my tastes and overall perspectives evolve since those days. Not to mention, every single time I tell someone I don’t like Goodfellas, they react as if I’ve told them I don’t believe in gravity. It got to the point where I really kept feeling like I had to be missing something here. Which is why I sat down and rewatched the film, seeking to analyze it with a fresh, new set of eyes, years after my initial disgust with it. I looked over this film as carefully and thoroughly as I possibly could, laser-focused on practically every single frame to make extra sure my opinions were airtight.
MY SECOND IMPRESSIONS OF GOODFELLAS
I was intrigued to find that I had both the same reaction and a bit of a different reaction. Did I come around to enjoying Goodfellas five years after my first viewing? No. But it’s nowhere close to being the terrible movie that I initially thought it was. There’s a good deal that I can truly respect about Goodfellas now … but not enough to say it works as a whole for me. And I want to really break down why that is, for two reasons. One, I just think any unpopular opinion is fascinating to learn about. Seriously, one of my Top 5 favorite movies is The Dark Knight, but I’m more than willing to hear out anyone who says they don’t like it.
And two, if I can explain my hottest of all cinematic hot takes in a way that gets everyone to at the very least say, “Yeah, I see where you’re coming from,” then I don’t think I’ll feel any pressure from going against the grain ever again. I’ll know that I can validate basically any opinion I have, no matter how much the film community may treat it like an objective sin. It’s a tall order, but why not give it a shot?
THE CHARACTERS OF GOODFELLAS HAVE NO DEPTH
Goodfellas takes place from 1955 through the 1980s and follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a troubled Italian-American in Brooklyn who becomes enamored with the mafia criminals in his neighborhood. He integrates himself into their society, befriending the likes of gangster leader Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), hijacker Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Though he makes a lavish living through crime and even finds an accomplice wife in Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), the enterprise starts deteriorating as their jobs attract more attention from the authorities, leading to their ultimate downfall.
I’ll start by establishing, right up top, that I generally don’t find organized crime stories very interesting on their own. Whether they’re about conflict over turf, webs of deception and betrayal, deals falling apart, or anything else, there’s an immediate barrier that needs to be overcome for me when the characters involved are all criminals or terrible people. I’m rarely rooting for anyone in these stories, because everyone on all sides is usually doing something morally reprehensible. That being said, there are plenty of film protagonists that are horrible people, but I still love to watch them. Patrick Bateman, Alex DeLarge, Arthur Fleck, Michael Corleone, and even Travis Bickle from Scorsese’s own filmography. I don’t cheer for them to succeed at what they’re doing, but I find them fascinating anyway because of how and why they’re such deranged people.
How did the characters in Goodfellas become so deranged? For the most part, we don’t know. Jimmy, Paulie, and Tommy are introduced to us already established in the gangster world. None of the other more minor criminal characters have any backstory or tangible motivations for having joined either. The only two characters whose criminal descent we have a solid understanding of are Henry Hill and Karen, making them the only two characters that I find somewhat interesting. But even then, with how much goes on in Goodfellas and how much of Henry’s life is covered, I have to constantly remind myself where he came from. And it’s not like his past plays any major role in the story once he’s an established gangster. Karen fares a bit better because her being in over her head is continuously apparent, but her reasons for getting involved with Henry at all are still not that compelling. Plus, like Henry, there’s a lot more happening around her that takes time away from her.
THE CHARACTERS OF GOODFELLAS HAVE NO CHARM
But okay, these aren’t the most thought-provoking characters when it comes to their psychologies or motivations. Maybe they could still be made interesting with enough charisma and charm? Well … I find most of these guys to be the total antithesis of charming. To be totally blunt, every gangster in Goodfellas is nothing more than a psychotic, blood-thirsty, vapid, greedy, heartless monster with no redeeming qualities and very little relatable humanity. No one in the film is funny or charismatic, and half the time when they’re laughing or screaming like a bunch of drunken frat boys, I just want them to shut up.
Tommy in particular is a savage, impulsive, wholly unlikeable piece of trash who seemingly kills anyone who blinks at the wrong millisecond. I thought I’d like him after his great “Funny how?” fake-out that shows he has a good sense of humor, but everything he does after that totally kills that brief window of positivity. There are mere bits and pieces where the group’s family dynamic provides me with something to latch onto. I like when Jimmy praises Henry for getting through his first arrest like how a father would praise his son, which makes his betrayal towards the end feel a bit sad (I say “a bit” because I still have no sympathy for either of these nutjobs). Paulie’s extra caution and calmer demeanor give him a little more dignity that makes him stand out (though again, he’s still going along with this filth). But these positive attributes are too few and far between.
WHY I DON’T LIKE THE TONE OF GOODFELLAS
But then that begs the question: are we supposed to not even like these guys at all? Well, that’s another issue with the film … I have no idea. Goodfellas wavers so harshly back and forth between being playfully mean-spirited and uncomfortably unpleasant that I can’t get any grasp on what I’m supposed to take away from anything. Maybe the idea is to show the ugliness underneath all the glitz and glamor of this mob underworld? On first viewing, I thought that’s what was happening. As soon as Tommy kills an errand boy, the mood abruptly becomes much quieter and more somber. That scene is followed up with Karen holding Henry at gunpoint in bed, one of the most suspenseful parts of the entire film that’s played completely straight. I thought this was the movie’s way of transitioning us into a sharp spiral where the humor and extravagance of prior scenes are stripped away to expose the black darkness underneath.
But then the film goes back to the less serious tone it had before … only to sometimes go back to a grittier sequence, before shifting gears yet again. I get that this keeps each scene unpredictable and tense because of the volatility that’s always creeping just beneath the surface, but it also paints Goodfellas as not knowing what kind of movie it wants to be. Maybe, in this way, the film itself apes what it’s like to be in these crime circles: it’s all fun and games for the most part, but shit can hit the fan at any moment. But like I said towards the start, I don’t like watching this gangster culture and I don’t see the appeal in such a thing. You could argue that’s more of a “me” problem, but the pedestal Goodfellas is put on makes me believe it’s supposed to transcend that personal taste.
Whatever the film’s intentions are, it’s a no-win scenario. If these characters are supposed to be at least somewhat fun to watch, the film fails miserably for me. If they’re supposed to be seen as repulsive, then the more playful sequences with them feel jarring. If we’re supposed to just observe them “objectively,” I don’t gain anything from that because, again, there’s no real substance to almost anyone. What about Goodfellas is adding to any greater understanding of humanity or life? What greater character analyses can be made when all I took from watching them is, “They’re sh*theads, the end?” Is the criminal system itself interesting to dissect? For me, no. All I take out of Goodfellas narratively is an unpleasant experience with unpleasant people, and that’s it. And not even in a satisfying way (since I’ve said before that I love disturbing content). It’s just … unpleasant and nothing more.
THE PLOT OF GOODFELLAS IS BLOATED
Because this next section will be discussing later portions of Goodfellas, I’ll have to explicitly address heavy spoilers. So, you’ve officially been warned.
You would think that, because of how detestable I find everyone, I would be immensely satisfied to see everything they’ve worked for coming crashing down in the end. Tommy is killed, Paulie and Jimmy are convicted, and Henry has to live a humdrum life among “normal” people. But firstly, we saw them get arrested earlier in the film. And to paraphrase Pitch Meeting, their lives in prison were super easy, barely an inconvenience. Secondly, for how savage and miserable it was to watch these people, this retribution feels both hollow and tame. I was hungry for much more brutal forms of comeuppance that we simply don’t get. Even Tommy’s death feels like an afterthought, with the camera barely lingering on his dead body before we move on. Henry living life as a “schnook” is apparently a horrid outcome for him, but all I can think in response is that he needs to just grow the hell up.
And thirdly, the second and third acts of Goodfellas are needlessly complicated for how little of it is actually worthwhile to me. Obviously, the big overarching thrust is the fallout of the Lufthansa raid, which also leads to Henry’s paranoia-driven mental deterioration. But before that, there’s a portion in which Jimmy and Henry are arrested for ten years, which feels like a needless detour that could have very easily been cut. I guess this is what gets Henry in the drug smuggling business, but couldn’t there have been a more streamlined way of getting there? As much as I love the bedroom scene between Henry and Karen, him cheating on her and then going back to her ultimately feels like another pointless diversion in hindsight.
There’s a several-minute buildup to Tommy murdering that errand boy … but what did that scene even add other than emphasizing the very obvious fact that Tommy’s insane? In fact, Tommy’s unceremonious death made me ask … if you wrote out his character entirely, would anything in the film really change? You’d lose the whole subplot of the group murdering Billy Batts (a “made man” who irritates Tommy), but that only exists so Tommy can later die in an act of revenge. It just seems like needless padding to me. Some may argue that you’d lose Tommy’s lovable, sparkling personality by cutting him out … yeah, no, let him rot on the cutting room floor.
That last point is really what all of my complaints boil down to in a very simple nutshell: I don’t like or care about any character in Goodfellas. The story is thusly uninteresting to follow, the various twists and turns bug me for how they force me to spend more time with these people, and even their ultimate downfall rings hollow because I have no investment in anyone’s journey, so I can’t really feel any investment in how it ends. Granted, even if I did care about everyone, I think I’d still have complaints about the plot’s lack of focus and subsequent bloated length of over two hours and twenty minutes. But those would probably be far more minor if I simply cared.
THE STRENGTH OF THE PERFORMANCES IN GOODFELLAS
So, you must think I absolutely despise Goodfellas, after all that complaining. Well, like I said, I did hate it on my first viewing, and I let it be known to everyone I spoke to if the topic ever came up. It was even one of the very few films that made me genuinely angry. But over five years removed from those bitter feelings, my second viewing was substantially less painful. Part of that is because I knew ahead of time what to expect, but I also just see a lot more of what the film does right. I don’t think Goodfellas is a bad movie, and pretty much every reason for that boils down to its technical aspects.
No matter what I think of the characters as they’re written, every actor clearly delivers exactly what they’re supposed to deliver, with as much conviction and authenticity as they could have possibly achieved. The dialogue on the page could have so easily sounded way too cartoonish and exaggerated, but even at the characters’ most heightened moments, they feel like real people … real people that I wanna deck, but real people nonetheless. I’ve been told that Goodfellas is really accurate and faithful to gangster culture, lifestyles, and terminology, even more so than something like The Godfather. I have no idea if that’s true, but the level of detail in bringing this world to life certainly makes it easy to believe … and if it is true, that’s all the more reason for me to hate everything about the culture.
THE FILMMAKING PROWESS OF GOODFELLAS
The work that was done behind the camera makes every scene, no matter how interesting, boring, or irritating, great fun to look at. The many long tracking shots through the interiors of elaborate hangouts and clubs are impeccably precise and turn you into a fly on the wall of these terrible places. I especially love whenever the camera sweeps around from slightly above, making it seem like we’re looking down into a hellish abyss even during the most celebratory events. But clearly Scorsese knew exactly when to rely on more quick-cutting edits or straightforward back-and-forth shots during the most confrontational, suspenseful, or frenetic portions of the film. The energy is high and kinetic where it needs to be, nail-bitingly suspenseful where it needs to be, and often both at once.
Goodfellas also has a very strong start, as it gives us a crash course on Henry Hill’s upbringing and how he entered the gangster scene. While many details are left vague, we get the essentials needed to show us the rough childhood he had, how that would drive him to the streets, and the delusional reverence with which he looks upon the criminals that take what they want while he lives in submission. At first, I was dismissive of the iconic line, “I always wanted to be a gangster,” but now I see it as a sign of how early his mind was infected by the notion that there’s any real worth in that kind of life. I just wish the film was able to keep up this kind of more thoughtful insight, especially considering how much it gets across with relatively little information.
I may not adore Scorsese as a filmmaker, but even when it comes to a film of his I don’t like (this is the only one so far, for the record), there’s no denying his talent … or maybe you could deny it. I hear some jerks don’t even like Goodfellas. I honestly may like this movie if I watched it on mute and just enjoyed the visual fidelity. I could talk about these positives for longer and in greater detail, but I’m 100% positive that anything I could say has already been said ad nauseum. This is widely considered one of the all-time great films, so every positive thing I say is going to have a big helping of “No sh*t,” attached to it.
IT’S OKAY THAT I DON’T LIKE GOODFELLAS
I’m more fascinated by how every single problem I initially had with Goodfellas is still present, and yet I’ve come to dislike the film far less than I did before. I don’t consider myself to have been imperceptive to filmmaking language and craft over five years ago, but I definitely think I have a sharper eye for it now … at least, I like to think that. So, I can appreciate and respect a lot more about the film, maybe also because I went in knowing I’d probably have the same issues and therefore didn’t get as irked by them. And then I like to think age on its own helps bring new perspective, along with me having seen more Scorsese films that I actually really liked right from the start.
Whatever the reason, even though I still don’t enjoy Goodfellas, I feel like I’ve somewhat “made peace” with it in a weird way. And hopefully this very long spiel makes enough sense for everyone to at least understand why I feel the way I feel with the movie. There’s clearly something in my very core that just does not resonate with the heart of Goodfellas and what it’s aiming to do, something that’s apparently rare among moviegoers and probably people in general. Would it be nice if I could join in the overwhelming love seemingly everyone else feels towards this supposed masterpiece? Of course! But if I can explain myself in a way that comes across as reasonable, then I can live with this unpopular opinion, and many other rare takes as well.
Goodfellas is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Watch Goodfellas!