The Irishman vs Goodfellas



The Irishman vs Goodfellas

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
It's crime flick versus crime flick: The Irishman vs. Goodfellas. Has Martin Scorsese outdone himself? As far back as we can remember, “Goodfellas” has always been Scorsese's crowning contribution to the crime genre. Almost three decades later, however, the director has quite possibly made his magnum opus with “The Irishman.” Which film is a better representation of Scorsese's work, which is the more intriguing exploration of the mob world, and which came the closest to hitting its target? The Irishman vs. Goodfellas? Let's find out!

The Irishman vs. Goodfellas

Has Martin Scorsese outdone himself? Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’ll be pitting “The Irishman” against “Goodfellas.”

As far back as we can remember, “Goodfellas” has always been Scorsese’s crowning contribution to the crime genre. Almost three decades later, however, the director has quite possibly made his magnum opus with “The Irishman.” Which film is a better representation of Scorsese’s work, which is the more intriguing exploration of the mob world, and which came the closest to hitting its target? Let’s find out!

Round 1: Protagonist

“The Irishman” centers on Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, a trucker driver turned hitman. We see Sheeran transition from a ruthless thug to a frail old man as he recounts his epic life story, although it’s unclear who exactly he’s telling it to. A journalist? A priest? The FBI? The most likely answer is that Sheeran’s talking to himself, reflecting on his sins. There’s a difference between feeling remorse and actually atoning for one’s misdeeds, though. Sheeran is beyond redemption, at least in the eyes of his loved ones, meaning he’s destined to waste away alone as mortality comes knocking on his door.

With “Goodfellas,” Scorsese aimed to paint an unsympathetic, deglamorized portrait of gangster life, which we experience through the eyes of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta. As charming, charismatic, and cool as Hill can be, he’s undeniably a pig who hurts countless people, including his own family. While not the film’s most despicable figure, Hill never completely earns our sympathy, nor does he ask for it. In spite of his numerous flaws, Hill’s biggest regret is that he couldn’t live the sweet life forever. Nevertheless, Hill takes solace is knowing that he got to be a gangster, if only for a period.

Sheeran and Hill are alike in many respects, right down to their Irish roots. At the same time, comparing them is apples and oranges, as one looks back on his life with hollow emptiness and the other looks back with pride. Between the two, though, Sheeran is the more complex and mysterious protagonist, leaving more room analysis and securing a point for “The Irishman.”

WINNER: The Irishman 1 / Goodfellas 0

Round 2: Supporting Cast

As if the reunion between Scorsese and De Niro wasn’t enough to get audiences excited, “The Irishman” also marked the return of Joe Pesci. While once again playing a mobster, Russell Bufalino can be seen as an against-type role for the usually hotheaded Pesci, who manages to be calm yet menacing. In his first collaboration with Scorsese, Al Pacino gives his best performance in years as Jimmy Hoffa, who bridges the gap between the political and criminal underworlds. The names just keep coming with Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, and even Ray Romano making the most of their screen time.

Before he played an Irish truck driver, Robert De Niro naturally slipped into the role of James Conway, an Irish truck hijacker. Conway may command every room he enters in “Goodfellas,” but the spotlight truly belongs to Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito. In a rapid-fire performance that won him an Academy Award, Pesci creates an unpredictable character who leaves everybody walking on eggshells. Lorraine Bracco also received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Karen Hill, whose attraction to Henry is almost like a cocaine addiction. The cast is rounded out with brilliant character actors, some of whom would later evolve into full-fledged movie stars.

It’s hard to find fault in either of these masterful ensembles, although one area “Goodfellas” clearly has “The Irishman” beat is in female representation. The most prominent woman in “The Irishman” is Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s daughter, who barely gets any lines. You could argue that’s the point since Sheeran was more committed to the mob than his own family, but it’s just enough reason to side with “Goodfellas” on this round.

WINNER: The Irishman 1 / Goodfellas 1

Round 3: Craft

While quieter and less energized that some of his previous efforts, it feels as if Scorsese’s whole career has been building towards “The Irishman.” After decades of honing his skills, Scorsese takes everything he’s learned and turns in a modern masterpiece with captivating cinematography, lush production design, and editing that blurs the lines between the past and present. From a technical standpoint, the film’s most talked about aspect has been its de-aging effects. While we’d be lying if we said this wasn’t a little distracting at first, the de-aging soon becomes an afterthought and all we’re left seeing is a young Robert De Niro.

The fact that Scorsese didn’t win Best Director for “Goodfellas” remains one of the greatest injustices in Academy Awards history. Whether the characters are sitting around a table eating pasta or disposing of a body, Scorsese makes the audience feel like flies on the wall, baring witness to every moment. The most impressive shot in the film – and possibly Scorsese’s entire career – is a single take that follows Henry and Karen through the Copacabana night club. With this meticulously crafted sequence, we’re given a first-hand look at all the perks and power that come with being a gangster.

You can see Scorsese’s signature written all over both of these films. Although “The Irishman” is grander in many respects, “Goodfellas” is the film we associate the most with Scorsese’s trademarks and the mob genre in general. Thus, “Goodfellas” gets this round’s point by a nose.

WINNER: The Irishman 1 / Goodfellas 2

Round 4: Themes

“The Irishman” touches upon many familiar themes from other Scorsese movies, such as pride, violence, and sins of the past. If we had to single out the film’s most prominent theme, however, it would have to be loyalty. Sheeran devotes most of his life to two men: Bufalino and Hoffa. So, when Sheeran is forced to make a decision regarding where his loyalties primarily reside, it amounts to one of the most intense and gut-wrenching moments in any contemporary crime movie. Sheeran was truly married to the mob, so much so that his actual family blended into the background.

Loyalty is a key theme in “Goodfellas” as well. Where Sheeran holds his tongue until the very end, though, Hill betrays everything he was taught and rats out his friends to save his own skin, as well as his family’s. In exchange, Hill’s able to live out the rest of his life in witness protection, but it comes at the price of his power and his pride. Belonging is another essential theme of Hill’s story. Hill spent his life wanting to belong to a gangster family. While he walks away a free man in the end, he’s now a nobody on the outside, looking in.

The themes of both films tread on similar territory, but “The Irishman” spells less out to the audience and is ultimately more interesting to dissect. Winner, “The Irishman.”

WINNER: The Irishman 2 / Goodfellas 2

Round 5: Dialogue & Writing

In an era where the genre has been parodied to death, it’s not easy to write mobster dialogue without sounding clichéd and redundant. Just look at “Gotti.” Yet, screenwriter Steven Zaillian was more than up to the task with “The Irishman,” penning a witty, thrilling, and at times even Shakespearean script. By far the most memorable exchange in the film is between Sheeran and Hoffa when they first speak to each other on the phone. Hoffa calls Sheeran up and says, “I heard you paint houses.” This line actually stemmed from the source material’s title and we suspect it’ll be quoted for years to come.

In addition to having one of the most memorable opening lines in cinema, “Goodfellas” possesses some of the most biting dialogue, not to mention one great insult after another. Scorsese worked on the screenplay with the book’s author, Nicholas Pileggi, although he gave his actors plenty of room to improvise. The freedom to ad-lib and input from the cast gave us the immortal “funny how?” scene, in which a minor comment escalates into a potentially life-threatening situation. Everything about the way these people talk comes off as natural, amounting to an authentic look behind the mafia’s curtain.

As well-written as “The Irishman” is, time will only tell how quotable it becomes. With “Goodfellas,” there were a dozen lines we found ourselves repeating walking out of the theater and we’re still repeating them to this day. This round’s winner is “Goodfellas” and if you disagree, call 212-555-HAIR.

WINNER: The Irishman 2 / Goodfellas 3

It’s hard to top perfection and while “The Irishman” comes close, “Goodfellas” remains Scorsese’s definitive mob movie with a final score of 2 to 3.