Saturday, November 20, 2010


From the Vault: Casino

Being widely considered the greatest working American director can't be an easy thing to live with, so it probably was inevitable that Martin Scorsese picture would eventually collapse beneath the weight of his own reputation.

Casino, aside from New York, New York, ranks as Scorsese's most disappointing in the post-Mean Streets era. At times, you'd swear it should be titled "Goodfellas Go to Vegas" with a self-reflexive tendency that rivals even Kevin Smith's Mallrats.

What saddens me is how easily these comparisons could have been avoided. Co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote the book that Goodfellas was based on) penned the book Casino while the movie filmed. The book ends up being stronger and more interesting than the film, which plays like it was written from notes.

Robert De Niro stars as Ace Rothstein, a fictionalized version of a real-life gambler who eventually ran several Las Vegas casinos for Midwestern mafiosos. Very little distinguishes De Niro here from other roles he's played and watching him, I kept thinking how good Harvey Keitel could have been in this part.

Joe Pesci does a Chicago variation on his Oscar-winning character from Goodfellas, playing Nicky Santoro, Ace's best friend, a mob enforcer. Pesci can still electrifyingly switch demeanors at a moment's notice, but Nicky resembles Tommy from Goodfellas so closely that it seems like inappropriate typecasting, especially when he becomes embroiled in a triangle with Ace and his wife Ginger (Sharon Stone).

Of the three leads, Stone actually gets the most from her role since, unlike the men, she's playing a part that's different from any she's done before. Thankfully, she's more than up to the task.

As always, Scorsese provides memorable sequences, but they don't add up to much or make this nearly three-hour movie consistently compelling. At times, it seems more like a Brian De Palma film than a Martin Scorsese one.

Scorsese, who has used voiceover narration so well before, saddles Casino with a first hour that consists almost entirely of audible exposition from De Niro. It starts to wear on a viewer, impatient for the movie to start. Once the film gets rolling, one section mesmerizes but that quickly gives way to a multiple-murder ending that bears way too much resemblance to Goodfellas and a drug scene that even borrows the same Rolling Stones song ("Gimme Shelter") that Scorsese used in a similar sequence in Goodfellas.

The performers do what they can, but many such as James Woods, Kevin Pollak and Don Rickles seem wasted. The character that intrigued me the most was Remo, one of the Midwestern mob bosses played by an actor named Pasquale Cajano whom I've never seen before.

As we've come to expect from a Scorsese production, the technical aspects are above reproach with solid work (aside from its length) by longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti. As with Goodfellas, Scorsese fills the soundtrack with virtual wall-to-wall musical selections, though in Casino the song choices often feel forced and obvious, as if Scorsese hoped the music could convey what he seemed unable to accomplish.

With all Casino has going for it, its lack of success becomes all the more disheartening. Movie lovers and Scorsese fans are liable to leave theaters heartbroken. You would think the fervor of gambling itself would instruct Scorsese's work with a feverish tilt, but the gaming plays like an afterthought.

Perhaps the lukewarm reaction from Hollywood to Scorsese's last film, the exquisite Age of Innocence, caused the director to retreat to more familiar ground. The reaction to Casino likely won't quell his fears.

Thankfully, his next project, Kundun, will tell the story of the 14th Dalai Lama and that sounds as un-Scorsese as anything he's done. Scorsese is at his best when he relies on his passion, not when he plays it safe.

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