Paradise lost

With Casino, Scorsese brilliantly leads us down the primrose path to heaven--and hell--on earth

No moment better captures the spooky surreality as disturbingly as when Ginger, on the run from her marriage to Ace, starts sniffing cocaine in front of her six-year-old daughter. At the screening I attended, uncomfortable titters were mixed in with gasps of dread from the audience. How, after all, can we judge such conduct? These are the inhabitants of paradise, the chosen few for whom conventional rules of morality do not apply, where cursing in front of your mama is unforgivable, but murder is just part of doing business.

Casino paints a stage as otherworldly as the nightmarish hell where Seven is set, but one not as bleak. In this domain, beautiful dancing girls occupy the same space as brain-splattered alleys, and the good life is there for the living--and, ultimately, the relinquishing. In the vein of classical Greek tragedy, Casino is about the hubris of man, the fatal flaws that allow him to fall, like Satan, from his lofty perch and lose paradise for no reason other than his own ego. Each of the principal characters suffers from such flaws. For Nicky, it is the corrupting influence of unchecked authority that lets him rob from much more powerful men without recognizing the consequences of his actions. Pesci played virtually the same part before in GoodFellas, as the short-tempered fanatic whose outburst finally cost him his life. It would be easy to say Pesci is breezing through the same part again, but it's not that simple with him. Nicky, with his nasal, Midwestern twang, is completely individual, and Pesci's performance here is as fresh and eye-catching as it was five years ago.

Ginger's two most obvious weaknesses (money and drugs) are merely symptoms of her more debilitating neediness, and Stone manages to pave new ground with this, the best role of her career. Although Ginger fades into a drunken stupor midway through the film, what precedes that (her efforts at charm and coy desperation), and then what follows (a boozy hardness, full of shrill physicality), make up for any soft parts in the middle. When Ace accuses Ginger of being manipulative by saying, "You're a good actress, you know that?" you find yourself nodding in agreement. After years as a mere bombshell, Stone picks up the gauntlet and shows herself up to the demands of real acting.

The film, though, revolves around Ace and his fault: his blind love for Ginger and loyalty to Nicky. Ace isn't stupid--he knows Nicky's friendship is a liability, and Ginger is dangerously unstable--but his devotion is as deep as his sense of personal honor will allow. Ace actually seems like a pretty upright guy; he's never shown killing anyone himself, and his tolerance of the rules is admirable. De Niro has sidled into his maturity with a seamless ribbon of characterizations; the precarious instability of Travis Bickle has been replaced by the considered saneness of Ace Rothstein. His gangster archetypes, from Don Corleone to Al Capone, have a vibrancy and spirit unmatched by almost any actor of his generation, and it's a delight watching him tackle another one.

Still, it's the perversities of Casino--both subtle and overt--that are among its chief joys. You can't help but laugh at the sly, witty way Scorsese casts every conflict. (When Ginger continually rams her sportscar into Ace's sedan, there's no mistaking where your loyalties should lie--with the Cadillac, not the Mercedes. Ginger is in the wrong, at least in part, because she doesn't buy American.) Without going to great effort to glamorize their lives, you realize that Scorsese takes wicked enjoyment out of the excitement inherent in the very venality of his characters.

When the fall comes (as it must), the mob finally loses control over Vegas as a moneymaking operation, and corporate America takes over. As he did with the scenes of dull suburbia at the end of GoodFellas, Scorsese can't resist the chance to poke fun at the homogenization of American society. To him--and Ace and Nicky and everyone else in sight in Casino--the banal phalanx of black-sock-and-sandal wearing retirees, descending upon The Strip like a geriatric plague of poker-playing locusts, is more disturbing, more terrifying than any car bomb--it is hell itself. Casino may not intend to glorify viciousness, but with its cheeky ambivalence and thought-provoking (but cleverly masked) messages, it leaves plenty of room to wonder whether Lucifer was right.

Casino. Universal. Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci. Wriiten by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Opens November 22.

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