‘CASINO’ IN BRIEF: 90 minutes spent on a labyrinthine (and even somewhat nuanced) buildup of a far-ranging criminal empire followed by 90 minutes of personal disasters. Altogether that makes three hours of bad things happening to people we don’t like. It’s a kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking, with ‘Sunset Boulevard’-style plot arc and narration; not one but two (wait, make it three) characters with voiceovers; freeze frames; slow-motion; dimmers and highlights; subtitles; and a virtually omnipresent pop music bed that dictated the audience’s moods at every turn. Only when characters were completely in collapse, shouting too loudly to appreciate Scorsese’s topical song selection, does the music stop. Like oases, those open spaces beneath the dialogue are welcome moments of respite no matter the scene (e.g. whichever drug-fueled tirade Sharon Stone might be unleashing on a long-suffering Robert De Niro).
If it weren’t so constantly self-congratulatory, ‘Casino’ might be enjoyable without caveat, as it is fundamentally sound as both a gangster film and a rise-and-fall memoir. But Scorsese simply has too much fun with his own have-it-both-ways take on Italian mobsters—Romantic and brutalized—so a story that would have been stretched at two hours somehow sprawls into three. Most of Scorcese’s big pictures handle themes akin to ‘Casino’s, but none spends as much time setting up a payoff that is hardly rewarding. ‘The Departed’ is the only film for which he has won an Oscar for Best Director, perhaps because it broke out of this expository rut and allowed its characters to define themselves through their interactions instead of the aggrandizing, rather detached monologues used here (and in ‘Goodfellas’).
This also occurs just by simply existing, instead of grandstanding, as we see in ‘Casino’s finest frame, which is also its last: a decidedly curmudgeonly De Niro, approaching his dotage, sits recollecting all that he’s endured and stares out at us like a dying portrait. And we all, at last, can exhale.