Critics' Corner

Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Losing war of creative redundacy."

Hal Hinson - Style section,
"An empty, tedious film."


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Roll Past This ‘Casino’

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In the early 1970s, Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a brilliant bookie, has been thrown a golden bone by his Midwestern mob bosses. Sent to oversee four of their casinos in Las Vegas, he has to make sure this easy-cash system runs smoothly and lucratively.

As long as he toes the line with the local politicians (who expect royal treatment), keeps an eye out for the professional scam artists and ensures a regular flow of cash to his superiors, Rothstein can live like a lord.

However, Rothstein falls in love with, then marries Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a classy hustler who drains him of money and trust. Also, he's self-destructively bound to childhood gangster-pal Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who wants to control his corner of Vegas with a dangerously conspicuous protection racket. -- Desson Howe Rated R


Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro; Sharon Stone;
Joe Pesci; Don Rickles; James Woods;
Alan King; Kevin Pollak; Frank Vincent
Running Time: 3 hours, 5 minutes
Filmographies: Robert De Niro; Sharon Stone;
Joe Pesci; Kevin Pollak; James Woods






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‘Casino’: Scorsese's Losing Bet

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 24, 1995

Martin Scorsese is gifted enough to be assessed at a higher level than most filmmakers. His failures are infinitely more robust than most Hollywood successes. Unfortunately, by those standards, "Casino," Scorsese's would-be epic about fear and loathing in Las Vegas, is not great. After coming out gangbusters in its first and finest hour, the 180-minute movie loses all its chips in the remaining two.

In the early 1970s, Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a brilliant bookie, has been thrown a golden bone by his Midwestern mob bosses. Sent to oversee four of their casinos in Las Vegas, he has to make sure this easy-cash system runs smoothly and lucratively.

As long as he toes the line with the local politicians (who expect royal treatment whenever they pass through), keeps an eye out for the professional scam artists and ensures a regular flow of cash to his superiors, Rothstein can live like a lord.

But there's trouble in paradise almost immediately. Rothstein falls in love with, then marries Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a classy hustler who drains him of money and trust. Also, he's self-destructively bound to childhood gangster-pal Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who wants to control his corner of Vegas with a dangerously conspicuous protection racket.

During the following decade, Rothstein is tormented by both parties. His wife, congenitally incapable of fidelity and moderation, lapses into drug and alcohol dependence and maintains a romantic link with her old pimp and boyfriend (James Woods). Santoro's careless, over-exuberant brutality attracts the attention of politicians and feds, which brings the heat down on Rothstein too.

After his Edwardian dabbling with "The Age of Innocence," Scorsese seems to be making up for lost time. "Casino," which he scripted with Nicholas Pileggi (based on Pileggi's nonfiction book of the same name), starts off magnificently. The opening section, a slickly edited informational whirl about Las Vegas, which outlines the food chain of mobsters, Teamsters, money counters, scam artists and even parking valets, is an exhilarating vision; it qualifies as brilliantly inspired documentary.

There are numerous other delights, including Stone's surprisingly strong performance. But these high points amount to won battles in a protracted, losing war of creative redundancy. Pesci's Santoro may qualify as one of the screen's great psycho-gangsters, for instance, but Pesci is simply re-creating what he did in "GoodFellas." And when Santoro jocularly discusses burying bodies in the Nevada desert, it's clear Scorsese and Pileggi are trying to disinter the success of "GoodFellas," their last collaboration. But they only come up with "Raging B.S."

The eye-opening violence in "Casino" may be an integral part of the story. But there are acts of cruelty that will test the most jaded of sensibilities, including a multiple stabbing by ballpoint pen, the smashing of fingers into fleshy bone meal by hammers, and—in the movie's grisly tour de force—the crushing of a man's head in a carpenter's vise.

These things horrify more than edify. They're just nasty joltings in an overextended, disappointingly rudimentary tale about a love-smitten wimp, a cheating bitch and a deranged killer, who destroy everything for one another. "Casino" ends up like a few too many of its characters: face down in a shallow grave.

CASINO (R) — Contains sexual situations, ceaseless profanity and grotesque violence.

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‘Casino’: No Aces Up His Sleeve

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1995

"Casino" is Martin Scorsese's 17th film and, with the possible exception of "After Hours," his least engaging. Based on Nicholas Pileggi's book about the Las Vegas gambling industry, the movie marks the director's return to the Mafia universe he captured so vividly in both his early "Mean Streets" and the more recent "GoodFellas" (also based on a Pileggi script). But it appears from the evidence here that Scorsese has gone to the well once too often.

In telling this violent story about a pair of best friends and the woman who comes between them, Scorsese seems to have run out of insights into the amoral scheming of his hood protagonists. Yes, the filmmaking here is rapturous and virtuosic—as it so often is with Scorsese—but instead of linking up expressively with the movie's themes, his flamboyance merely distracts us from the vacuum at the movie's core. It's an empty, tedious film—a disappointing, jumbled rehash of brilliant past work.

"Casino" presents Vegas as a mobster's dream come true. According to the old joke, Vegas is the only place where dissatisfied customers keep coming back, and to the mobsters back East who run the casinos, the gambling business is like a license to steal. "Back home, they would lock us up for doing what we're doing," notes the movie's hero, Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro). "Out here, they give us plaques."

Rothstein's nickname—Ace—was pinned on him as a result of his legendary skill as handicapper. His specialty is inside information; if a place kicker has a hangnail on his big toe, somehow the information will reach Ace. Because of his reputation, Rothstein—who is based on real-life Chicago handicapper Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal—is considered by the mob to be the perfect man to run its casino. The bosses put him in charge of running the Tangiers, and in no time, he turns it into the most profitable spot on the Strip.

As long as Rothstein pays attention to the money, and keeps sending a piece of the action back home, he's in fine shape. And much the same can be said of Scorsese, as well. The film is most engrossing when it follows the cash flow.

But the director can't seem to get a handle on the human conflicts within his story. The trouble for Rothstein comes from two fronts: The first is his childhood friend Nick (Joe Pesci), an enforcer from the East who comes to Vegas; the second is his wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone), a former hooker and "chip slut," who initially represents Rothstein's dreams of domesticity.

Nick is like the characters in "GoodFellas"—a professional crook who makes no apologies about his line of work, even if it involves murder. He has no illusions about going legit. Rothstein, on the other hand, fancies himself a businessman. Though Ginger and Nick make matters tough for Rothstein, it is the gambler's own delusions about who and what he is that cause his downfall. Dressed in his expensive crayon-colored suits, Rothstein is a careful, meticulous man with elegant manners and a courteous, patient presence. He doesn't want help from Nick, whose idea of dealing with a problem is to stab a man to death with an ink pen. Almost from the start, Rothstein can see that Nick means nothing but trouble for him. But, like Charlie in "Mean Streets," Rothstein can't bring himself to dump his friend and save himself.

Though the conflicts among the characters are intense, the interchanges among these stars don't throw off much in the way of sparks. As Rothstein, De Niro is aloof and unreachable. Watching over the casino, his face is that of a corporate bean counter keeping track of every penny. If there is skill or passion or even intelligence in what Rothstein does as a gambler or an executive, De Niro never shows it.

As usual, Pesci provides some energy and has most of the movie's good lines, but because his character here is almost identical to the one he played in "GoodFellas," it seems as if the actor is just going through the motions. Stone has the toughest character to play—she's high throughout most of the film—and, by far, she gives the film's most electric performance.

Scorsese may be flailing here, but Scorsese flailing is more formidable than most directors at the top of their form. There's a curious, personal dimension buried deep inside "Casino." The innately gifted Rothstein could be a stand-in for Scorsese himself. Working for the casinos, Rothstein abandons that special talent in exchange for comfort and security. In the process, he loses himself—which is perhaps how Scorsese sees working for the studios. The money men back home for Scorsese are the executives who back his films, and who—after the disappointment of "The Last Temptation of Christ"—must seem at least as soulless as the mob bosses here. The solution for Rothstein is to return to his roots; for Scorsese, the same may be true.

Casino is rated R.

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