friday night movie club

Casino Is the Gaudy Pinky Ring of the Vegas Movie Subgenre

I love this movie about a lot of greedy, glamorous people who are always looking for the bigger and better deal. Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from Vulture contributor Hunter Harris, who will begin her screening of Casino on November 20 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead to next week’s movie here.

“Heist should be one of the main film genres,” my colleague Jesse David Fox tweeted recently. “Comedy, drama, horror, superhero, heist.” He was watching (the mostly good and unfairly maligned) Ocean’s 13, and he was mostly correct, except that I do think heist is already a primary film genre. The genre distinction we really need is the Vegas movie, or, at the very least, the gambling movie: a movie about schemers and scammers, a movie about people who don’t feel like they’ve won unless someone else has taken a hit, a movie about screwups who land in the only place where screwups can wear sequins and really thrive. If there was such a genre, Casino would be its gaudy pinky ring, its operatic achievement. There’s something really special about this movie, about its sprawl, its momentum, its utter lack of romance. Martin Scorsese, my sweet prince, has made a lot of perfect movies and a few perfect American Express commercials. Casino, I’d wager, is one of the best of them: I love this movie about a lot of greedy, glamorous people who are always looking for the bigger and better deal, especially when it’s at the expense of what they already have.

It’s hard to sum up the plot of Casino in a few neat sentences. Two mafia guys are sent to Las Vegas, and they cavort in the city like pigs in slop. Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is an expert handicapper, sent to run ritzy hotel casinos. Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) is his friend, and, when it suits them, sometimes his enforcer. Sam meets Ginger (Sharon Stone), a blonde who can out-hustle them both, and lovingly convinces her that marriage could be the best-paying scheme of them all. The trio finds themselves in paradise where their slick genius is appreciated: “For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins,” Sam says once. “It’s a morality car wash. It does for us what Lourdes does for humpbacks and cripples.” But they’re washed clean only to be dirtied by new sins. Casino’s camera lays out a big, glittering world before me, and it doesn’t look away when a couple people fuck it all up.

Entire days should be devoted to Ginger, and Sharon Stone’s stunning performance. Stone, and by extension Ginger, just vibrates on a higher frequency. (I profiled Stone recently and referred to it as her “megawatt everything-ness.”) Her introduction is one of the movie’s best scenes, complete with needle drops so on the nose they shouldn’t work, but presented so brazenly you can’t resist the camp. Sam sees the hustle before he sees her. A blonde, wearing a short white sequin dress and go-go boots, her hair in a super-mod ’60s flip. She’s running the craps table, arms wide, squealing with delight. In between giggles, her glamorous claws curl around a few chips, and she slips them into her bag. When the game is over, and the guy she’s with wants to screw her out of her cut of the winnings, she tosses a rack of chips into the air. They rain down, multicolored, like confetti on a crowd of eager onlookers. Ginger doesn’t even care. She makes eyes with Sam, and glides out the door. There’s such magic in this scene, the way she can’t be bothered, the way she can’t be touched. “What a move,” Sam says in voiceover. “I fell in love right there.”

And so they get married, and things go bad fast. The usual read of this movie, and where the final scene lands, is that this trio — Sam, Ginger, and Nicky — is cast out of the garden for misbehaving in Eden. I’d go further: Casino covers itself in their glitzy hubris, and their shared belief that they can shove one another out the door. They are maniacal in the way they just keep misbehaving. Sam married a woman he knew didn’t love him, and paid for it every day. Marriage was a hustle that didn’t pay on Ginger’s terms. Nicky is Pesci’s GoodFellas character, ratcheted up a few dozen notches. But GoodFellas is a movie about family, and how it’s sad when that family splinters. Casino is a movie about fistfuls of cash, and the people who’d do anything to get their hands on them. Love and greed and resentment become much harder to tell apart.

I should say a word or two about this movie’s legacy, because it’s turning 25 or whatever. Casino isn’t Scorsese’s greatest (that’s The King of Comedy, or it’s Mean Streets, or it’s Taxi Driver, or it’s … ), but it is dazzling, stylish filmmaking. Desperate people strike it big, and it all turns to ash in their hands. The GoodFellas parallels are obvious — they share the same mob fascination, the same key players — but I think this movie’s closest cousin is the wildness of Wolf of Wall Street, which takes its time to revel in the absurdity of an ostentatious life. Ginger swaddles herself in chinchilla coats! Sam sharpens the collars of his coral-colored suits! There are corner tables, diamonds falling out of high buns, James Woods sticking out his tongue at a child! This is not a movie about good people who got in over their heads, or made a few mistakes. This is a movie about people who insist upon every hustle, every gamble, every garish set piece. People who then hold their hands out and ask for more. If they had another chance, they’d blow it all the same way.

Casino is available to rent on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

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Casino Is the Gaudy Pinky Ring of the Vegas Movie Subgenre