Married to the Job

Director Martin Scorsese shoulders his cross--again--inCasino

As played by Stone, Ginger is less femme fatale than a means to reflect Ace's pathology. Significantly, it's Ace who fails to live up to the terms of their dispassionate marital transaction, and also to his own tenet: "When you love someone, you've gotta trust them." The tragedy of Casino is that Ace knows he's the best, and therefore can't trust anyone but himself. This character flaw sets in motion a protracted downward spiral: Sam tries to compensate for his basic weakness by becoming a media celebrity, then turns into a raging bull; Nicky goes on a thieving kill-spree after being banned from the casinos; and Ginger wallows in a pit of coke and booze. Finally, as the mob structure falls apart and the casinos are taken over by corporations, the gangsters are displaced by junk-bond magnates and amusement-park tourists.

The storytelling structure of Casino might be the director's most complex ever. In the first hour, while Scorsese's typically restless camera wanders around the casino, the Pesci and De Niro characters take turns narrating in voiceover, explaining how the money that's gambled and lost flows from the casino tables to the "countroom" to the mob bosses at their safe outpost in Kansas City. With the dual narration, Scorsese is able to deal from two separate decks: He gives you Ace's fastidious worldview, then Nicky's anarchic one, then shuffles between the two in order to complicate the sort of cause-and-effect drama that might type one character as less greedy or despicable than the other. And as before, Scorsese's total command of the medium is clear--from the eye-popping cinematography and the razor-sharp editing to the uncanny use of soundtrack music (the movie manages to include everything from The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" to Devo's "Whip It" and Georges Delerue's somber theme for Godard's Le Mepris).

It's in keeping with Scorsese's unpredictable nature that, just at the time he'd be pegged as a genre chameleon, he returns to the form that he knows best. But the familiarity is a tease: He uses the notion of Casino as GoodFellas 2 to disarm the viewer before introducing something altogether richer, more complex, more personal, and more mysterious. Purporting to document the fall of the mob family, Scorsese is actually portraying the collapse of a nuclear family--which makes Casino more of a piece with Cape Fear and The Age of Innocence than Mean Streets or GoodFellas. It's about why marriages between tortured, selfish, "creative" people can't possibly work. If Ginger seems the movie's most human character, while Ace remains a vacant, compulsive louse, it's by intention. Casino blatantly withholds sympathy for the artist who, engulfed by pride, has only himself to gamble with.

Scorsese's movies have generally been about obsessed guys who struggle with their obsession, suffer greatly, and discover an ironic sort of redemption: Taxi driver Travis Bickle appears to rescue a teenage prostitute from her pimp and is praised as a vigilante savior; Jake La Motta beats his way to the middleweight crown, loses everything, and seems to find his soul as a cut-rate nightclub comic; Rupert Pupkin gets on network TV; Paul Hackett finds his way to work in the morning; Jesus Christ gets to save mankind. While the director's heroes have mellowed in recent years, their victories have become even darker, more negligible. Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence succeeds in masochistically denying himself the thing he wants most in life. And Ace is perhaps the first Scorsese protagonist who, in the end, has achieved next to nothing. If I didn't know better, I'd say Casino is about Scorsese confronting his fear of failure. And in this way--to quote another famous obsessive--it is accomplished. CP

Casino is playing at area theaters.

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