Is it possible that the man who's widely regarded as the world's greatest living director makes films that work as mental exercises but occasionally lack a beating heart? I've seen 6 of his films to date, and I've liked each of them. However, I haven't always felt an emotional connection to the characters on the screen. I wonder if this is something that is unique to me or if there are others who feel similarly.
I suppose that I need to qualify that observation. He's definitely got at least one film that I would consider a masterpiece. Raging Bull is an unqualified success on multiple levels, and, out of the Scorsese films that I've seen so far, is easily the best. There are reasons that this film is often considered in the discussion of the greatest movies ever made. I would not hesitate to consider this one of the greatest films of the 1980's, if not THE greatest.
It's important for me to get that out in the open. I don't want you to think that I'm at all dismissive of his work.
It's just that GoodFellas, while a good movie, doesn't really hit me on any real kind of gut level. Sure, there were moments where I was moved or felt that something in particular was fairly compelling, but, on the whole, it doesn't seem to add up to something particularly lasting. I marvel at those who say that GoodFellas is the cinema's greatest exploration of the mafia. I think that that honor belongs to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Case closed. No questions asked.
Here's the deal. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese obviously have very different interpretations of the mafia. Coppola's interested in showing life as a gangster from the top down, and Scorsese's interested in it from the bottom up. That said, there are, by necessity, going to be stylistic and structural differences between the films made from these two perspectives. I think the edge easily goes to Coppola.
Here's an example. In both GoodFellas and The Godfather Part II, there's a scene in which the main character's wife reveals something to him that creates conflict and confusion. In Coppola's film, in that moment, the performances were pitch-perfect. The scene was pitch-perfect. My jaw literally dropped. My opinion of Diane Keaton's skill as an actress skyrocketed in an instant. In Scorsese's film, while I felt a certain level of sympathy for the characters, when the two of them are sitting on the floor crying, I couldn't help but feel that, in Lorraine Bracco, I was witnessing an actress try really hard to make me believe that she was broken up instead of embodying that emotion.
What's more, Coppola managed to make a piece of art out what was essentially a great pulp novel. He discovered depths to the material that made it seem almost Shakespearean in scope. On the other hand, Scorsese's film feels somewhat scatterbrained by comparison.
Here are a couple of things that distracted me from what GoodFellas seems to have been trying to do in painting a convincing portrait of the mafia. First off, the persistent narration seemed to be trying to keep me at arm's length, particularly during the first act. I was prepared to get into a real, honest-to-god MOVIE, but the voice-over seemed to be self-consciously reminding me that I was experiencing something constructed by a filmmaker. Recognizing what one is watching as artifice isn't necessarily bad, but, in this case, it was distracting. I wanted the narration to stop so that the narrative could actually start. Also, I found it odd that there were two narrators. I think the film would have been more tightly focused by only having one. The contrast seemed slightly jarring when it was first introduced.
Additionally, I didn't think that Ray Liotta was entirely convincing as the lead character. This might seem like a minor complaint, but whenever Henry Hill laughed, it always struck me as seeming fake in some way. It may only be a slight nuance, but, if you're going to have guy laugh all the time in a movie, it's important that he doesn't look like he's faking it. On the other hand, Robert De Niro was solid, as was Joe Pesci, but the focus was clearly on Liotta, and I don't think he was up to the challenge.
What's more, by the time the final act rolls around, there's a change in tone that doesn't come across naturally. It's essentially one giant set piece that describes a day in Henry Hill's life, all that he must accomplish, and how he's going to go about doing it. Apparently, Scorsese was trying to portray the distracted, intensified mindset of someone strung out on cocaine, but at this point in the movie, Henry'd been on coke for a while and he'd never acted quite like that before. Scorsese's apparent intention is all well and good, but the sequence seemed inconsistent with the rest of the film.
I don't want to seem dismissive of GoodFellas, because I liked and enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I just didn't see the great film that I've heard about for so long. I'll watch more of Scorsese's work and see if other films of his have the same effect or if this is a somewhat isolated incident.