There’s a lot of great stuff on streaming services these days. As a connoisseur of life without cable, I’m here to (sometimes) guide you through what’s available from the 1990’s. Welcome to What’s Streaming?!?
Martin Scorsese is fucking awesome. I know that’s not very insightful or eloquent, but how else can I describe such an American treasure? The director’s resume is littered with inarguable classics, films that have led to posters adorning dorm room walls everywhere. He’s a true auteur, a man with such intense control of his craft, who leaves such an indelible mark on each of his films, that he’s become bulletproof (unlike many characters from those films). He’s more than earned the right to indulge his artistic impulses, which has led to films reaching dizzying highs and engagingly intriguing lows. Even his misses are worth checking out, since they are inevitably more entertaining and visually satisfying than most of what’s out there.
Included on any list of those lesser thrill rides in Marty’s oeuvre would undoubtedly be Casino. Somewhat derisively viewed as ‘Goodfellas: The Sequel’ when it was first released in 1995, the film often does little to separate the director’s ambition from that easy criticism. A fictionalized story based on real life mob figures Frank Rosenthal and Anthony Spilotro, it isn’t a bad movie but it’s not really a good one, either. After seeing the film for the first time recently, I had two main takeaways: ‘MEH’ and ‘why on Earth was that 3 hours long???’
The film reunites the director with Robert De Niro (as Sam Rothstein) and Joe Pesci (as Nicky Santoro) to once again explore society’s seedy underbelly. The sordid tale about the rise and fall of the mob’s control of Las Vegas from the 70s through early 80s is flashy, gaudy, and often confusing as all hell. Much like the city it chronicles, there’s a heavy dose of surface level pizzazz and an emptiness at the core (excluding Sharon Stone’s fantastic performance as Sam’s wife Ginger). Long stretches of the film are content to revel in the city that “washes away your sins…like a morality car wash,” or demonstrating how the mob used its influence to “rob the place” blind. The first hour meanders along, almost exclusively documenting the inner workings of a casino. Forty minutes in, my girlfriend wondered aloud how there could be two plus hours remaining when nothing had really happened yet. The film feels less like a cohesive story than a patchwork mosaic of various storylines and vignettes stitched together over 3 hours.
The problems start immediately, in a rather iconic flash forward opening, where Rothstein is the victim of a car bomb. We know things will go sour with Sam over the intervening decade once we start the story proper, so the choice to spend that much time meticulously establishing the way a casino is run and how the city was crookedly developed is a bit baffling. The incessant, dueling narration between Sam and Nicky (which features Pesci using a bizarrely distracting accent) doesn’t help, as they walk us through every…single…step in that complex process. There are so many scenes and sequences that could have been cut or shortened to reduce the bloated runtime, like when Sam marches into a casino kitchen demanding each muffin is given equal blueberries, or Ginger’s sex scenes with Nicky (because, God love him but UGH: no one wants to see a Joe Pesci sex scene).
In many ways, Casino is the Scorsese-est Scorsese film there is. He deploys every trick at his disposal: quick cuts, rapidly edited sequences, tracking shots, dolly zooms, Dutch angles galore, and the aforementioned constant narration. Almost every shot where Nicky commits a gratuitous act of violence is engulfed in a weird, soft lighting. There’s even a mirror of the “Layla” scene in Goodfellas with a murder/tying-up-loose-ends montage set to a classic rock track (but not one of the six Rolling Stones songs featured). Scorsese luxuriates in his comfort zone, flipping off anyone who lamented the return to his bread and butter of mob movies.
And given that it’s a mob movie, set four decades ago, there’s a deep undercurrent of patriarchal suppression of all the female characters, something that’s hard not to feel squeamish about in our current cultural climate. Stone’s Ginger, as suppressed a woman as ever portrayed on film, is far and away the best part of the movie. The epitome of a woman beaten down before she ever had a chance (which Stone nails), she’s introduced already broken, hustling men and living life on the outskirts of moral acceptability. As she slyly pockets chips under the weary eye of a high roller du jour in her first scene, Sam leers at her on a surveillance camera like a shiny new toy. It’s clear that he and the rest of the world see her as an object to be desired, and she’s decided to take advantage of that status, resulting in a deep sadness and desperate longing that haunts Stone’s performance.
Sam proposes soon after and insists on marriage despite Ginger’s immediate assertion that she doesn’t love him. He muses their mutual respect can “grow into love,” and they agree to terms for their marriage. When Sam finds Ginger crying on the phone AT THEIR WEDDING (speaking with her manipulative, gaslighting former pimp/lover, played with slimy aplomb by James Woods; who knew he could play such a convincing misogynistic asshole!), he’s barely bothered, because he’s simply bought a trophy wife. The complete lack of love or genuine affection is made clear during a gut wrenching physical argument late in the film, as he shouts she’s “lower than a dog” to him. Despite it all, she returns later the same night, somber and alone, making their previous encounter all the more excruciating.
This isn’t really a story about a dysfunctional and doomed relationship, though, so the mafia’s loose ends need to be tied up over the final stretch. Speaking of: Sam survives the car bombing at the beginning! Frank Rosenthal survived a similar blast in real life, so it isn’t cheap in and of itself that he doesn’t die here. But considering the artistic license available to modify the events, the choice to stick with reality is underwhelming. We get the car bomb survival, a voiceover mourning Vegas morphing into “Disneyland” (in an evocative sequence of Henry Hill’s lamentations at the end of Goodfellas), Sam’s allowed to live a long life because he earns money (?), and…that’s it. For a film that takes its sweet ass time getting to where it wants to go, the ending comes off rushed and more than a little flat.
Casino is certainly entertaining and engaging enough if you’ve got 3 hours to kill, even if it’s hard not to feel a bland indifference towards the experience. I watched it, some scenes were awesome, but way more were disappointing. I can’t say I’ll watch it again in the future, but my admiration for Martin Scorsese and what he has brought to American cinema in over 50 years remains unchanged. Casino would be the high point for most filmmakers, but it’s just another notch on the legendary director’s belt. After seeing this movie, I’m convinced it’s not his masterpieces that have cemented his place in cinematic lore; it’s his spectacular failures.