#20 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
This feels like Martin Scorsese on autopilot. Half history lesson and half drama, Casino feels like a film built from way too much material to pare down in the time Scorsese and Pileggi had to write the script. Recalling a lot from Goodfellas in terms of actors, characters, and overall structure of a story in the world of the mob, Casino is Scorsese using all of his tricks on familiar ground which feels like it should be fodder for me. I do find the movie an entertaining three hours, but there ends up feeling like there’s little point in the end. The rise and fall of Sam “Ace” Rothstein and the rise and fall of mob controlled Las Vegas end up feeling disconnected to me, like they happened coincidentally rather than one feeding the other. There’s just too much of Ace’s problems that feel concentrated on his own personal life without touching larger Las Vegas issues.
Ace is a gambler “back home” (apparently Chicago could never be mentioned directly for legal reasons) who always brings in money for the mob bosses and gets called up to run the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas. He walks in, turns things around and increases profits for the mob almost instantly, running a tighter ship on cheats and operations. He also marries a female hustler, Ginger, when his childhood friend from back home, Nicky, a violent psychopath of a made man in the mob, comes to Las Vegas to offer muscle support to Ace and also set up his own street operation on the side.
All of this takes about an hour to set up in a series of voiceover heavy vignettes that never really amount to individual scenes. Told by Ace and Nicky in alternating narration, almost like the words were taken from oral history accounts of the time and place, the movie flashes back and forth in time, around Las Vegas, back home and to Kansas City in a flurry of activity that ends up feeling dizzying. This is where, I think, the movie works least well. It’s not that the storytelling here is inefficient, which it is, it’s that it prevents any sort of emotional grounding with any character. Granted that they’re kind of all terrible people, but Ace is made to be the straight shooter in a group of rule-breaking criminals. He understands the rules of gambling and casinos, and he wants to operate within those bounds to create the money for his bosses back home. He could have been someone to latch onto emotionally.
He probably shouldn’t have been best friends with a violent psychopath or married an unstable junkie with a very strong attachment to a pimp, though.
As I mentioned, it takes about an hour for the movie to calm down and actually deliver scenes instead of snippets and vignettes. Once there, the movie gains a footing that it never loses, firmly and energetically telling its core story, but I think it also begins to disconnect Ace’s personal story from Las Vegas as a whole making the connection incidental rather than having the two stories really inform each other. Nicky ends up getting kicked out of every casino in town and pissing off the cops so much that he has to operate outside of the city proper. Ace fires a connected good ole boy, insults him to his brother-in-law, and brings the wrath of the state down upon him when they refuse to issue him the gambling license he had filed for. Ginger can’t let go of her pimp boyfriend, Lester, and keeps taking money from Ace to give to him. Ace just wants to run his casino, but the chaos that rises up around him ends up consuming everything.
Joe Pesci essentially plays Nicky like he played Tommy in Goodfellas, but with less warmth. Tommy was a violent psychopath, but he could have some fun with friends that didn’t involve murder and mayhem. Nicky seems to only get pleasure from violence. Pesci plays this well. De Niro plays Ace as a completely collected professional, the kind of person you would expect that the mob might hand over a casino to in order to guarantee profits. His attention to detail, most amusingly demonstrated when he demands equal numbers of blueberries in all muffins from his chef, is exacting and precise. Sharon Stone, though, is where I’m not sure of in terms of quality of performance. She’s good through most of the film, playing an insecure woman with a well-worm façade of confidence, but by the end Ginger is a shrieking insane person for most of the film. I think the performance exists on a line between appropriate for the character and over the top, and I get the feeling that it leans towards over the top.
As everything ends up falling apart, with Ace starting a talk show to maintain his voice in the public square in his fight with the gaming commission over his long applied for gambling license, Nicky going so far out of control that the mob back home has to exert some control, and Ginger nearly stealing her and Ace’s daughter to Europe with Lester, the movie never really feels like it comes to anything in my mind. Goodfellas had a clear eye towards what it was trying to say about the appeal of the mob life, but in Casino, the mix of history and histrionics don’t mesh as well to me. It feels like Ace is supposed to have learned a lesson as he sits in his home in San Diego, but he’s pretty much the same guy he was at the beginning of the story. Is this a bemoaning for the lost era of Las Vegas, now taken over by corporations instead of wise guys? Ace does say that in the final voiceover, but the mob era was so violent and chaotic and led to Ace’s professional downfall that it feels like a weird thing to miss. Sure, Ace misses the control he had, but he was a cog in a larger, more violent machine, and he doesn’t seem to even see that.
In the end, I find Casino to be a shallow adventure in another time and place. The intricate look at life in Las Vegas in the 70s through the eyes of some of the fictionalized most powerful people in the city is interesting, violent, and consistently entertaining, but that first hour feels amorphous and unstructured while the ending leaves me with little to chew on thematically. It’s a fun movie, but little else.