Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Premise: Inspired by true events. A mafia associate (Robert De Niro) runs a Las Vegas casino. He’s joined by a violent mobster (Joe Pesci) and marries a beautiful hustler (Sharon Stone). The casino is a success but greed, lust, and politics threaten to derail everything.
What Works: The gangster genre and the going-into-business story frequently dramatize the American dream and offer a critique of capitalist narratives. Casino pulls those genres together to create a complex story of ambition and greed. This film is primarily the story of Sam Rothstein, played by Robert De Niro. Sam is the master of his field and he understands all the nuances of gambling and the service industry and as well as the entire structure of the casino industrial complex. He’s an expert who is primarily logical and rational and he applies his knowhow to turn the casino into an efficient moneymaking machine. Sam is the inverse of Nicky, played by Joe Pesci. Where Sam adheres to a rigid set of ethics and pragmatically sees the long game, Nicky is a violent, passion-driven hothead. Between them is Ginger, Sam’s wife and a former hustler and prostitute, played by Sharon Stone. Where Sam is a referee, Ginger is a player. She is smart but she’s also materialistic to a fault and Ginger’s appetite for money and drugs eventually gets the better of her. The lead performances of Casino are quite good. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci aren’t stretching themselves here but they are doing what they do best. Sharon Stone is extraordinary and she finds the humanity in what could otherwise be a simple and despicable character. Casino also features a lot of good casting choices in the supporting roles such as Don Rickles as a mid-level manager, Kevin Pollak as the establishment’s front man, James Woods as a pimp, and Frank Vincent as a mafia enforcer. These characters and their performers add a lot of color and credibility to the movie. They also fill in the scope of Casino with each character holding a place in an economy built around gambling; the titular establishment is a microcosm of capitalism. All of the relationships in Casino are transactional and love and friendship are gradually poisoned by greed. The story successfully dramatizes the reciprocal relationship between human nature and capitalism. The extreme violence of the movie, which was criticized in 1995, is crucial to that idea and the gory overkill takes on a metaphorical quality that is appropriate to the gaudiness of Las Vegas.
What Doesn’t: Casino is of-a-piece with two other Martin Scorsese films: Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. The three movies feature similar characters on parallel trajectories and the films employ similar styles and techniques. The links between Casino and Goodfellas are especially striking. Both films concern organized crime, were written by Nicholas Pileggi, and star Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as similar characters. It could be convincingly argued that Scorsese made the same movie three times and Casino ranks third of the lot. By coming second and repeating so much of Goodfellas, the 1995 film plays as an attempt to recapture an earlier success. But Casino suffers from flaws other than repetition and familiarity. The pacing lurches forward in places and languishes in others. Complicated events are rushed though while the film dwells on the domestic subplots. The triangular relationship between De Niro, Pesci, and Stone’s characters is well acted but it’s also a little overwrought. Their story is not all that different from a soap opera and late in the movie these characters seem less like sophisticated gangsters and more like the guests of an episode of Maury. The last hour of Casino has multiple climaxes and the finale of the movie doesn’t bring the story to much of a conclusion.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, documentaries, and deleted scenes.
Bottom Line: Casino is a middle-tier Martin Scorsese picture. It repeats a lot of concepts and styles seen in better Scorsese films and it’s a little too unwieldy for its own good. Nevertheless, Casino is an ambitious tale of greed and capitalism that’s slickly made and well acted.
Episode: #656 (July 16, 2017)