Martin Scorsese (1995)
The Rotten Tomatoes entries include the following from Philip Thomas (Empire magazine):
‘It may not be Scorsese’s greatest work, but this guy feeling a little off-colour is still far, far better than most people on fighting-fit form.’
Thomas’s line is taken by several other reviewers and sounds reasonable in theory but it’s not how I felt about Casino. Knowing what Martin Scorsese was capable of made matters worse – made me more aware of the lavish talent going to waste. To say this isn’t Scorsese’s greatest work is putting it very mildly but Casino is record-breaking in other ways. At 178 minutes, it was his longest picture until The Wolf of Wall Street pipped it by a single minute. Now it’s become the first Scorsese movie this viewer has walked out of. I started thinking of doing so very soon. Only guilt feelings kept me in my seat until just past the two-hour mark.
Casino has points in common with Goodfellas. It’s based on a non-fiction book by Nicholas Pileggi (Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas) and has a screenplay by him and Scorsese. Of the three main actors, two – Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci – are the same in both films. The principals’ violent behaviour is described on the screen; their motives are somewhat explained in voiceover. The soundtrack comprises pop songs rather than an original musical score. Casino compares badly with Goodfellas in all these shared features. Joe Pesci’s psycho mobster Tommy DeVito in the earlier film had greater impact – and was (just) bearable – as a result of his rationed appearances. Pesci’s psycho mobster Nicky Santoro in Casino is a much bigger role (even within the time I stuck with the film). It’s as if Scorsese sees it as his duty to give the audience plenty of what they seemed to like before regardless of what that was. Nicky is soon more boring than scary. The only other difference in Pesci this time around is his fake facelift that made its debut in the intervening Jonathan Lynn comedy My Cousin Vinny (1992). The use of Ray Liotta’s voiceover in Goodfellas is also very rationed compared with Robert De Niro’s (and occasionally Pesci’s) here. The pop soundtrack in Goodfellas (as in Mean Streets) connected with the life of the film’s protagonist. In Casino, the accompanying songs play almost continuously (or that’s how it feels) – almost indifferently.
Goodfellas has a built-in narrative shape, describing the rise and self-protective fall of Liotta’s Henry Hill. Casino might seem a more ambitious piece of storytelling – an attempt to chart the history of how the running of the big Las Vegas casinos changed hands, from the Mafia to major corporations, in the period between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1980s – but the film is epic only in running time. Nicky Santoro and the casino boss Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (De Niro) have more or less reached their career peak at the outset of the story. That they’ve been friends from boyhood may have been true of Sam and Nicky’s real-life counterparts; it’s still a too familiar means of bolstering the drama of their falling out with each other as men. Robert De Niro is disciplined and commanding but making Sam Rothstein convincing is counterproductive: it exposes his uninteresting hollowness. When Sam loses his heart to the scheming hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the love and trust that he gives her seem a sentimental cliché of Scorsese and Pileggi’s making rather than an authentic expression of the character’s vulnerability. Sharon Stone is startlingly beautiful and never less than adequate as Ginger (for two hours anyway). You still wonder if the praise showered on Stone’s performance was partly a reflection of surprise that she could cope with such a supposedly substantial role.
The revelation that Nicky, whatever he’s been doing the night before, always makes breakfast for his young son comes across as a nearly parodic variation on the but-he’s-very-good-to-his-mother trope in gangster stories. It’s clear from his interview with Ian Christie in Sight & Sound (January 1996), which BFI used as their programme note for Casino, that Scorsese still feels for these characters but his suggestion that whatever Nicky does illustrates ‘the frailty of being human’ is pushing it. Away from the New York milieu which means so much personally to Scorsese, his professed sympathy with the mobster soul verges on the perverse. That impression is reinforced by the visual style of Casino. Martin Scorsese makes a brilliant spectacle of even minor incidents, let alone the many violent ones, in the story; but the grandiosity is empty and perhaps he knew that he’d hit a creative nadir. Perhaps the film is so inordinately long because Scorsese kept struggling unavailingly to bring it to anything more than technically dazzling life.
27 January 2017