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SAM ROTHSTEIN (ROBERT DE NIRO) favors sports jackets in blinding solids--sometimes in the primary hues, sometimes in less-than-subtle pastels. These he color-coordinates with silky haberdashery and alligator loafers dyed to match. But underneath his sight-gag plumage lives a gray, watchful, calculating spirit. He's a professional gambler, always looking for an edge. Or, once the Mob makes him manager of a Las Vegas casino in the 1970s, the preternaturally alert defender of its edge over the assembled suckers.

He is not, however, what you'd call a people person. And therein lies the downfall it takes Casino (or should we call it GoodFellas Go West?) three hours to record. Until it's too late, Sam is entirely too tolerant of his lifelong buddy Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a cheerful psychopath who is more trouble than he's worth. Sam also falls into distracting obsession with Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), and that's not good for him or for business either. She's a hustler whose excessive interest in furs and jewels would warn off a more worldly man. As would the fact that she leaves their wedding banquet to make a tearful call to the sleazy lover (James Woods) whom she never fully abandons.

The film is based on material Nicholas Pileggi gathered for a nonfiction book that has just been published, and the screenplay he wrote with director Martin Scorsese is at its best in its reportorial passages. If you want to know just how the Mafia skimmed the profits from its Las Vegas operation, or how not-so-wise-guys tried to scam it, Casino is instructive in an almost documentary way. But Scorsese, one of the cinema's great stylists, has evolved a manner for his film--a compound of mini-dissolves, jump cuts, freeze frames and optical effects--that is anything but documentary. It is a kind of objective correlative for the way Sam keeps an eye on things--roving distantly, then boring in on whatever looks suspicious--nd if it is sometimes distancing, it is equally often brilliant.

What Scorsese and Pileggi have not evolved is an attitude toward their material that is equally riveting. Mostly they romanticize the Vegas that was, before the corporations moved in to Disneyfy and democratize gambling. In the good old days, they say in their voice-over narration (of which there is far too much), the place was to wiseguys what "Lourdes was to hunchbacks and cripples," a holy ground where organized crime was free to practice its amoral rites and where that miracle cure for the terminally outcast--sudden, improbable wealth--was always a real possibility. There's something a little too easy in this conceit, although there's good black comedy in it too--especially in the notion that it is the tragic flaw of hubris that eventually robs Sam and Nicky of their place in paradise. The former, apparently unaware of Bugsy Siegel's fate, aspires to celebrity-mobster status; the latter ratchets up his murder rate to crime-spree levels; both fatally attract the attention of the law and their own godfathers back home, who naturally prefer quieter business methods.

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