The 'GoodFellas' flap: How it gets a movie and both genders wrong

The 'GoodFellas' flap: How it gets a movie and both genders wrong
Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in "GoodFellas." (Warner Bros.)

The flap over "GoodFellas" — in which New York Post critic Kyle Smith begins the argument by asserting that "women don't get GoodFellas" and goes from there — is the kind of hand grenade that gives movie writers conflicted feelings.

On the one hand, there are a lot of silly Web columns out there that are beneath criticism. On the other hand, the piece about the Martin Scorsese classic is so misguided — cinematically as well as morally — that it cries out for a reply. And since there are few writers, males included, who can resist that (unlike the men Smith imagines, we can’t turn down a good cry), a response seems called for.

Full disclosure: I am socially friendly with Smith, and I think he really believes his contrarian, often cantankerous opinions‎. He may be wrong — deeply so, in this case — but he's not a clickbait guy, or at least it's not his primary animating force. I wouldn't say the same for the headline writers at the New York Post, who top the piece with a bit of transactional 21st century we'll-push-your-button-if-you-click-ours phrasing: "Women Are Not Capable of Understanding 'GoodFellas'"


Smith's fundamental argument is based on two suppositions, neither of which seems eminently provable by anything other than Smith's asserting it so. The first is that "GoodFellas" is primarily and even exclusively a fantasy — that its genius comes from the fact that, as he describes, it features characters "doing what guys love above all else: sitting around with the gang, busting each other's balls." (He uses some variant on "ball-busting" to describe the movie's appeal no fewer than 10 times in a piece that doesn't tally 1,000 words.)

The second is that this aspect plays extremely well to men and not at all to women — "Women sense that they are irrelevant to this fantasy, and it bothers them," he writes.

Neither of these claims hold much water. It's not just that the piece is offensive to women (which it is, not least because so many women love "GoodFellas") or men (which it is too — we can't like a movie unless there's a high level of "ball-busting" and no discussion of feelings?) but that it gets much of the film wrong.

Smith presupposes that the whole thing is a fantasy, that its source of greatness is that characters ‎are doing things we want to be doing. That would be a pretty silly reason to think a film is great. (By that logic a porn flick should win the Oscar every year.) But more important, it ignores what's actually happening in the film. These characters are not heroes, they're not people whose lives or moral compasses we're supposed to wish for, or that most people would wish for.

That Scorsese deftly adds in some comedy or makes these guys interesting to hang out with is not the same as making us want to be just like them, which is the definition of a fantasy. At the end of the movie, the characters we've been most identifying with end up in jail and witness protection‎, and are deeply unhappy about it. That would seem to be the best argument — the only one you need, really — that this is not some giant exercise in wish fulfillment.

Smith, though, seems to see those handful of scenes where they're having a good time, imagines it would be fun to be in them, and locks in on the idea that this is a fantasy, with no quarter given to other readings, or even, for that matter, other scenes.

Evidence of this reductive interpretation is everywhere. Here's how he sums up the movie's main thrust. "At its core, 'GoodFellas' is a story of ball-busting etiquette." Alert Emily Post, Scorsese is here to write the sequel.

Smith ends his piece by saying that had a woman made this movie, it would have been a rather boring and unwatchable picture. He describes, facetiously, how it would look (italics his):

"Meet an at-risk youth called Henry Hill. Victimized by horrific physical abuse from an early age, and traumatized by the responsibilities of caring for a handicapped brother, he fell prey to criminal elements in his rough East New York neighborhood at a time when social-services agencies were sadly lacking. At an impressionable age, he became desensitized to violence when a gunshot victim bled to death in front of a restaurant where he was working. His turn to the mafia was a cry for help — a need to find a family structure to replace the one he had never really known."

The irony is that all of this is actually subtextually in the movie, and is part of its grand ambition. The skill of Scorsese is that he communicates all of these serious ideas without spoon-feeding them to us, that he puts them all underneath the packaging of a fun, funny, suspenseful crowd pleaser. The tone-deafness of Smith is that he doesn't seem to understand that this is part of what makes the movie great. (Or is pretending not to — there's a case to be made, judging by Smith's Twitter feed, that this is all a practical joke of sorts. I don't believe it is — I think he really believes his argument — but you can make the case.)

There was a smarter column to write about gender divides over different movies. Those divides surely do exist, and just as surely have something to do with cultural assumptions and education and respective experiences, and do not require reducing a movie to unpersuasive tabloidisms like "'GoodFellas' [is] 'Entourage' with guns instead of swimming pools."

If Smith had been interested in a bona fide discussion, there were a hundred ways to go about it, and a lot of questions to ask: Why do some movies play better with one gender than the other‎? Is it us or is it the films? Is "GoodFellas" one of them, and why? (I'd argue it's not. A lot of women I've talked to about "GoodFellas" over the years like it precisely because of its male focus and how it lays bare aspects of the male ego, the aspects Smith thinks its unadulteratedly glorifying. Men like it for those laid-bare aspects too — not just because the film doesn't contain discussions about feelings.)

And, yes, there's the question — which he raises in the close of his piece, inadvertently — of why are there so few films on the other side, movies that get at these big themes via a female director or abundance of female characters. It was telling that in looking for comparisons to‎ "GoodFellas" for their rebuttals, many people came up with "Sex and the City." (It's a comparison Smith invoked too.) Yes, that franchise does feature primarily one gender hanging out. And that movie has a large female audience‎. But that's about where the comparisons to "GoodFellas" stop. One is a modestly scaled comedy about relationships while the other is an ambitious drama about ego and family and the meaning of life (with some well-developed female characters too, but I digress).

The better comparison would be to a serious drama with women lead characters. Sadly, there aren't many in the modern era. I've heard "Fried Green Tomatoes" mentioned, and I thought of "Sophie's Choice," but I'm not sure either fully fits the bill. Indeed, part of the issue that's gone unspoken in the whole debate about Smith's piece is what it means that there aren't more ambitious films like "GoodFellas" by and about women in the first place. They don't actually have to be about the mob, of course — they don't have to look anything like "GoodFellas." But they should have some of the same seriousness of purpose.

On Sunday, the theater director Marianne Elliott won best director of a play at the Tonys.  I happened to quickly look up equivalents on the movie side. Or tried to. A woman has won a Tony for directing a play in three of the past five years. A woman has won an Oscar for directing a movie in one of the past 87 years.‎ That woman, by the way, was Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker," a movie about men at war.


Subjects like that elude Smith's piece. There are a lot of substantive things to say about how and why men view movies like "GoodFellas" differently than women, or if they do. And there's a lot to say about female-centric movies in this vein, or the lack thereof.


Smith said none of it, choosing to focus on the same post-adolescent reaction to the movie that he admits he had in 1991, seeming to update it not a bit to his present status as an adult critic. Hey, but we're just busting Smith's chops, right? There is, after all, no higher form of cultural expression.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT