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The Dice Age

Let's Get Stoned: Sharon Stone in "Casino"

Martin Scorsese lingers too long in Las Vegas

By Michael S. Gant

Las Vegas is the city of dreams--a pool of golden light in the vast blankness of the desert. It was Moe Green's dream in the Godfather mythos; it's a death dream in the current Leaving Las Vegas. And in Casino, the city is director Martin Scorsese's neon-saturated reverie. Although Casino boasts a historical trajectory--the last hurrah (1973-1983) of the hard guys and made men in gambling's Mecca before the corporations transformed Vegas into a sanitized theme park--it doesn't play like a saga. The story begins with its ending foretold, and what comes in between is less a demonstration of how fate and circumstance conspire than it is a looping, rhythmic, riffing exercise in pure style.

The plot ostensibly follows the rise and calamitous fall of gambler and casino manager Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro); his mobster friend Nicky (Joe Pesci); and Sam's sucker-hustling wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone). But De Niro and Pesci aren't playing characters--they're filling in as iconic markers in Scorsese's elaborate tapestry of image and sound. They don't have to act, they just have to reference GoodFellas and Raging Bull. Scorsese gets far more effect, for instance, out of one perfectly framed shot of Sam, beset by legal and extralegal woes, pouring himself a shot of antacid from a blue bottle that exactly matches the color of his suit than he does from a clichéd scene in which the camera halts and the soundtrack goes dead while Sam tries to convince Ginger that he's sure she can learn to love him.

What Scorsese really cares about are the look and sound of an era, and he immerses us in the world of '70s Vegas glitz with a vividness that is breathtaking at times. From the sensuous, abstract close-ups of casino marquees in the opening credits (by the legendary Elaine and Saul Bass) to the rapturous tracking movements and swooping crane shots, the gyre of visual information is intricately interwoven with the staccato wise-guy patter and smartly collaged music (from Muddy Waters to the Moody Blues to Jeff Beck to Devo). The texture is so dense at times that the added voice-overs (offered, in gimmicky style, by both Sam and Nicky, who step on each other's lines and memories) become a mere background buzz imparting nothing but truisms (casino gambling is fixed--no!).

For about an hour and a half, the current running through Casino is very live, and very electric. Unfortunately, the film is three hours long for no useful reason. By the last hour, Scorsese has used up his juice, and the scenes start to succumb to narrative inertia. Like a drum soloist who doesn't know when to quit, Scorsese leaves his audiences wanting less, not more.

Casino (R; 180 min.), directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, photographed by Robert Richardson and starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci.

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From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 1995 issue of Metro

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