MARY NEMETH November 27 1995


MARY NEMETH November 27 1995

Good and bad fellas


Three movies play with classic genres

In Hollywood, familiarity breeds success. Three new movies, ranging in style from brutal realism to giddy fantasy, offer a fresh spin on classic genres: Casino gambles with the gangster epic, The American President dusts off the Capraesque fable, and GoldenEye revives the James Bond franchise.

Casino could be called GoodFellas II. like its 1990 predecessor, Casino is about gangsters losing their grip and stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. It, too, is based on a true story that director Martin Scorsese co-wrote with Nicholas Pileggi, and uses relentless narration and music to weave a saga that builds from patient sociology to electrifying drama. But, running almost three hours, Casino is a longer, heavier, darker fdm. It is also more violent, ending with one of the most shockingly vicious scenes in screen history. And, although Casino reserves some nostalgia for the arcane rituals of the mob, none of its characters is as conveniently sympathetic as the wise guy played by Ray Liotta in GoodFellas.

Casino is, in a sense, Scorsese’s Godfather. It has the epic scale, the operatic violence and the cornered protagonist who craves legitimacy—just like Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. But unlike Coppola, Scorsese does not mythologize his gangsters, and there is no warm and loving family, just a collection of grasping, mean-spirited individuals in love with cash. Casino, after all, takes place in Las Vegas.

Set mainly in the 1970s, the story follows the fortunes of Sam (Ace) Rothstein, a Jewish bookie from the Midwestern mob who ends up running the top casino in Vegas. It seems too easy. “Running a casino,” he says, “is like robbing a bank with no cops around.”

While skimming the profits for his bosses, Ace (De Niro) cannot tolerate freelance cheating, or people skimming the skimmers. And his meticulous operation is threatened when his old friend Nicky (Pesci), a brutal thug, moves in to grab a piece of the action. As Ace’s empire unravels, so does his marriage to Ginger (Sharon Stone), a former chip hustler who has become a spoiled, alcoholic housewife.

As the emotionally armored Ace, De Niro is utterly compelling, but breaks no new ground. And Pesci cranks up his GoodFellas psychopath act to the max. Playing the desperate wife, meanwhile, Stone has to do

most of the emotional work. And with a flatout performance, she proves her talent once and for all—acting her pants off without having to take them off.

Scorsese, however, is the star. Using an inordinate amount of narration (by Ace and Nicky), he documents the casino’s legalized robbery in mesmerizing detail—the endless river of cash. Gradually, the director teases the viewer with some snatches of dialogue, then actual scenes, finally escalating to pure drama of brilliant intensity. A wall-to-wall

sound track comments on the action, with a generous dose of The Rolling Stones (who introduce Sharon Stone with Heart of Stone).

Casino is rich in witty asides—look for the quick camera shot of cocaine through a rolled banknote. But Scorsese does not go out of his way to please. The violence is horribly off-putting. And as the viewer’s sympathy bounces like a roulette ball from one character to another, it keeps coming up empty. Trying to like these people is like trying to beat the odds in Vegas. Tempting, but impossible over the long run. Yet, by gambling against Hollywood’s house style, Scorsese makes the whole nervy exercise seem both essential and rewarding. He is America’s finest director, and with Casino he has once again upped the ante.

The American President is, by contrast, innocuous fare. And it requires a herculean

suspension of disbelief. We are expected to buy that Andrew Shepherd played by Michael Douglas—typecast as a sex addict in Basic Instinct and in the tabloid press—is a widowed president of unassailable integrity who has been celibate for several years. Almost as hard to swallow is the premise that the White House is in the hands of a liberal president to the left of Bill Clinton with a 63-per-cent approval rating from the voters. But this movie has considerably more wit and charm than its contrived trappings suggest. The American President wages an irresistible campaign to win over the most skeptical viewer.

It is, at heart, a Cinderella story. The commoner who gets whisked off to the ball is an environmental lobbyist named Sydney (Annette Bening). The comedy and the romance hinge on Andrew’s awkward attempts to improvise a protocol for presidential dating—and on Sydney’s starstruck response to being courted by the world’s most eligible bachelor. As dates give way to sleep-overs,

the media turns “the Sydney factor” into an issue. Attacks from a right-wing congressman (Richard Dreyfuss) drive down the president’s popularity in the polls. And, with the president and the “first mistress” lobbying Congress with his-and-hers campaigns— gun control for him, clean air for her—their love hangs in the balance.

The American President is an office romance writ large, a caricature of what happens to a career woman when she sleeps with the boss. But, through her eyes, it also offers the vicarious thrill of an intimate Oval Office tour. Despite Sydney’s reputation as a tenacious lobbyist, like so many Americans, she looks up to the presidency with the kind of reverence accorded to royalty. On first passing through the White House gates, she tells the guard she has to stop and savor the Capraesque quality of the moment. And on meeting the president, she is so flustered that her hardball image turns to mush.

But the post-feminist gender roles are undercut with irony. Bening—a radiant middle-aged beauty with unlifted smile lines—lets an intelligence shine through her character’s romantic confusion. Douglas, meanwhile, wears the presidential role surprisingly well. Delivering his strongest performance since Wall Street (1987), he exudes power with a patronizing charm.

Despite lapses into sentimental corn—notably in scenes with the president’s 12-year-old daughter—director Rob Reiner has crafted a whimsical fable that packs a deceptive punch. Douglas’s climactic speech is one of the most moving addresses by any U.S. leader—real or fake—in ages. Under siege by the moral majority for allegedly desecrating family values, Hollywood finally strikes back with The American President, which attacks the right wing while serving as just the kind of wholesome, old-fashioned romance it has been clamoring for. With The American President, Hollywood liberalism dies and goes to heaven. The film does not reflect political reality in America, but as a vision

of Camelot Redux, it is a beguiling fantasy.

GoldenEye taps a nostalgia for a hero who dates back to the era of the Kennedy White House. The Bond movies are the most successful film franchise in history. And GoldenEye, the 17th in the series and first in six years, gives 007 a new lease on life. Pierce Brosnan is no Sean Connery, but he is the best Bond since Connery started it all with Dr. No in 1962.

GoldenEye jump-starts with a breathtaking bungee dive off a giant dam. But the big thrill in any Bond movie is the opening credit sequence—and this one is the best yet,

with nude silhouettes draped around stone hammers, sickles and crumbling Soviet statuary. Cut to the cliffs of Monte Carlo, the silver Aston Martin. Bond doubling the clutch. Racing a woman who drives like a man. Cut to the casino. Shaken not stirred. The hits just keep on coming.

GoldenEye is crammed with classic scenarios: the Turkish bath, the conspiracy bunker, the doomsday countdown. There are, of course, token concessions to change. Bond’s boss, M, is now a bullish woman (Judy Dench) who calls him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” But Brosnan plays it sauve and straight, while female empowerment remains a joke—femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) crushes men to death with her thighs.

Director Martin Campbell lays on the action—his centrepiece is a slapstick chase with Bond barging around St. Petersberg in a tank. GoldenEye is good fun, even if it drags near the end. In the Bond tradition of premature bang-bang, the real climax comes early: that title sequence is a hard act to follow.