Greed, deception, money, power, and murder occur between two mobster best friends and a trophy wife over a gambling empire.
Year 3, Film #9
THE GOOD: The best part about any Scorsese film is almost always getting a look into a life we are not a part of. With Casino, we get a look once again at the ever infamous mafia, only this time we see them at the height of their power in Las Vegas. It’s like watching Ocean’s 11 or 21 on steroids. You see exactly to what lengths people are willing to go to get their way in Vegas. Someone tries to cheat at blackjack; you take a hammer to their hand. Someone else won’t give you information you want; their head goes in a vise. Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) brings the brains to the operation and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) brings the muscle. The two of them enforce a level of “cooperation” in their casino that brings many front-facing benefits while also bringing along much behind-the-scenes drama. As often as I say such and such film does a great job at providing insight into another life, Scorsese’s film genuinely do so almost every time and Casino is just another example.
THE BAD: Goodfellas is always the example I point to of Scorsese’s of the film I dislike. It’s a film that’s received much praise and is touted as one of the best mob movies out there, but I’ve never agreed with that. Unfortunately, I watched it before I started this marathon so I don’t have a review that I can link back to and quote when I need. Fortunately for me, many of my feelings about Casino are similar to how I felt about Goodfellas. So what is it about two of Scorsese’s most critically acclaimed films that I don’t like.
Well for starters, it’s a film that feels like it goes nowhere and lacks purpose. I say feels because there is indeed an end goal — seeing the downfall of the mafia in Las Vegas — but you have to get through so much unnecessary exposition to get there. Narration is one of Scorsese’s defining characteristics and it’s on full display in Casino to what I feel is it’s detriment. The first half especially is just a ridiculously long introduction to what we’re about to see. For over an hour we hear Rothstein and Santoro narrating the events and describing the setup to how things came to be in Vegas. As a ten-minute introduction, this would have been fine. But as an hour and a half road-to-nowhere, it drives me crazy. Rothstein’s good with numbers and he’s going to run the casino, Santoro is good at beating the shit out of people and he’s going to enforce the “law”. Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) is a very persuasive and influential prostitute who catches the attention of Rothstein and will only spell bad news for him. Those are the simple basics that we need to know to get the story going. You want to try and familiarize us with these characters and the environment they’re living in, fine, but cover that after an introduction.
This also just sets the film up for disappointment. For me, the story goes absolutely nowhere for the longest time covering things so inconsequential that I wouldn’t have even thought about them occurring and needing to be shown. By having the introduction be so long, by the time you get to the more meaty parts of the film, you’re already bored out of your mind waiting for something important to happen. Yes, you are getting that feel and experience that I mentioned above is so valuable and well done in a Scorsese picture, but at what cost? Either go in whole hog for that or don’t try at all.
One of the reasons I thought The Wolf of Wall Street was so entertaining, despite it’s length (it beat Casino by one minute to become Scorsese’s longest film) is that it was all about being part of Jordan Belfort’s insane lifestyle. The whole point of that film wasn’t about the rise and fall he experienced as a stock broker and the eventual criminal investigations, it was about seeing the drugs, sex, partying, and other wild shenanigans that went on on a daily basis. And the best way to get a feel for that is to draw those scenes and moments out to ridiculous length and show all the banal events along with the crazy. But with Casino, whose purpose is — at least it seems to be — to tell a story about organized crime in gambling rather than the lifestyle, this method fails.
Even if the film was significantly cut down thought I don’t think it would help because the issues I have with the film are more inherent than that. Sure it’s fun to see moments like the guy’s head being put in a vise, or an FBI surveillance plane having to land on a golf course because it ran out of fuel. But these cool, interesting, and quite revealing moments are few and far between and the antithesis to what the majority of the film is like. Most of the film has no drive, no energy that carries you from one scene to the next. It has energy within each scene, but the moment stops at the transition and you have to start all over again. The story that Scorsese is trying to tell is quite vast and expansive and could indeed fill a full three hours of film. But instead of taking the time to try and explain what’s going on, that time is spent instead on inconsequential actions that support a more introspective approach. Instead of getting something like The Wolf of Wall Street, we get something like Goodfellas, and in my opinion, both Casino and Goodfellas are trying to be films that they’re not.
My favorite film critic, the late Roger Ebert, disagrees with almost all of my criticisms and thoroughly enjoyed Casino. He is also one of the many who enjoyed as well. And what I find most interesting about both his reviews is that I agree with them on one central point: Scorsese’s ability to depict a life, mob life, that many of us have no experience with. But the reason that Ebert enjoys both films is that he views this as the central driving factor and contributor to the film’s entertainment value. I on the other hand, view this as a nice side benefit, but find the actual meat of the film, the story and the character development, to be subpar, goes almost nowhere, and takes a long time to do so. I find this difference in opinion to be fascinating and one of my favorite parts about the film-going experience: two people can have wildly different reactions to the same film while also having some of the same feelings too.
THE TAKEAWAY: Casino, for me, is a film with a runaway story that seems to go nowhere. It does provide a great look into the history of the mafia influence in Vegas, but it’s meandering focus and reliance on small and unimportant plot points makes this yet another of those classic films that I just can’t get behind. Many others have enjoyed this film and you may too, but for me, it’s boring and uneventful. I’ll stick with The Departed instead.
THE RATING: 2 out of 5