Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, Don Rickles, Kevin Pollak, James Woods, Don Rickles, Kevin Pollak, Alan King, Frank Vincent
Goodfellas has been one of my favorite films since it’s release in 1990. It’s also one of two films most people cite as being horrible Oscar misses (Raging Bull being the other). I have been afraid of writing about the film, for the realization I may not possess the adequate skill to describe the film. This feeling is magnified each time I see Scorsese duplicate the film. By my count, it’s been done four times now, including The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman. Casino is the first. This is why I hated the film so much when it was released, and resisted watching it a second time until now.
Enough time has passed and with the Covid 19 quarantine still in effect, I decided to take advantage of the fact the film is free to watch on Hulu. I am not going to give this film anything more than 3 more hours of my precious, dwindling days on this planet.
The story is a drama based on real life of the gambling magnate Frank Rosenthal. In this film he’s named Sam “Ace” Rothstein and he’s played by DeNiro. He is incredibly talented, he’s also Jewish. Because of this, the made men who work out of Kansas City utilize him to run the Tangiers (Stardust) Casino, but he will never be a made man. His lifelong friend Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is made, though. After Sam hits it big in Vegas, Nicky follows, providing security, but also a steady dose of problems.
In one of the important differences in this film, we see trouble between Nicky and Sam immediately. Therefore, there is the tension of realizing all of “this” will fall apart before Scorsese truly establishes what “this” is in any form. Given that the film starts with an exploding car of one of the main characters is enough. Rewinding to two characters with two gaping flaws is too far to feel any sense of fun that all of the lights of Vegas seem to promise.
The story gives a passing, inexact description of Vegas behind the scenes in the 70’s through voiceovers by Sam and Nicky. The inclusion of a Pesci’s character as a voiceover is a curious choice. It’s meant to give the dichotomy of perspectives, but I wonder if there is any basis for this historically. The character would not have had the opportunity to give his story to Pileggi when the writer was putting together the book. It feels instead like a bargaining point for an actor who is experiencing a career high point, due partially to his Oscar win in Goodfellas. The resulting dilemma is a divergence of perspectives that give less clarity to the overall story.
Sometime late in the first act, we meet Stone’s Ginger McKenna. This is an obvious love interest for Sam, even though she clearly has no interest in taking it to the altar. That they marry anyway allows the viewer no real sense that there is a paradise here. It’s really just trouble, with jewels and cash promised on exit.
We get to see Rothstein is good at what he does. We get to see that he can run the place without having an official title. We see that corruption was piled as high as the applications in the gaming commission. We never get the feeling that any of this is enjoyable, even in the slightest.
The overall feeling of the film is that we’re just waiting for the explosion. The best part of its predecessor, Goodfellas, is that it is clear that these mobsters REALLY enjoyed doing what they were doing, and took the hits as a price of admission. The bottom falls out in the end, but what a ride. Casino is the bottom falling out from moment one.
The cast includes a collection of Vegas and mafia stalwarts. Some carrying over from Goodfellas, like Frank Vincent. It’s nice to see him get an expanded part. Some, like Rickles, just feel underused. He’s there because we expect to see him there. The version we see is not in any way the Rickles we enjoy. He’s just a guy under Sam.
For Stone, this is the most acclaim she would ever receive, after Basic Instinct. It’s also the start of the downhill trend of her career. She gives the old college try, but her character is underwritten, weepy and drunk. I wouldn’t think it was worth the acclaim, but it’s not horrible.
Scorsese includes little of his incredible pacing ability in this film. Strange as it is, with Schoonmaker, Pileggi and much of the talent he had working with him, the film feels off kilter from the first. That explosion at the start is poorly filmed. From the bad cut that throws a dummy in the seat abruptly, to the floating through the flames, only to find out the real explosion is nothing like that, the film never finds a natural rhythm. It feels like someone cramming for the big test, then just giving the same answers they always give, but in random order.
My original assessment of this film was zero stars. Re-watching pushes it up a bit. It’s still not even close to a good Scorsese film. It’s one of the fruits of the labor of a great career that he’s been able to keep remaking the same film over and over. This doesn’t make the stale fruit taste any better.
(**1/2 out of *****)