Director : George Hickenlooper
Screenplay : Norman Snider
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Kevin Spacey (Jack Abramoff), Barry Pepper (Michael Scanlon), Jon Lovitz (Adam Kidan), Kelly Preston (Pam Abramoff), Graham Greene (Bernie Sprague), Maury Chaykin (Big Tony), Spencer Garrett (Tom DeLay), Ruth Marshall (Susan Schmidt), John Robinson (Federal Agent Patterson), Jason Weinberg (Snake), John David Whalen (Kevin Ring), Matt Gordon (Bill Jarrell), Jeffrey R. Smith (Grover Norquist), Christian Campbell (Ralph Reed), Eric Schweig (Chief Poncho)
Casino Jack opens with its eponymous antihero, disgraced super-lobbyist and businessman Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), delivering an increasingly angry defense of himself into a bathroom mirror. He is not practicing a speech, nor is his defense directed at anyone in particular. Rather, it appears to be a daily ritual, a means of energizing himself and rehearsing out loud the justification for everything he does. It is a crystalline moment of character development, establishing in the very first moments that Abramoff is a man of great intensity, passion, and determination. He is also defensive, angry, and ethically challenged--interwoven traits that led to his becoming a wealthy businessman and one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, but also to his subsequent downfall amid charges of corruption and fraud that landed him in prison for six years. Abramoff thought big, he talked big, and as a result, he lived a big life, one that the late director George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl) and screenwriter Norman Snider (whose based-on-sordid-real-life screenplays have also dealt with the Mitchell Brothers and Heidi Fleiss) try to capture as an all-too-relevant cautionary tale in this darkly humorous, but uneven film.
Similar to Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), another outsized true-story political fable about how real power works, Casino Jack derives much of its energy and momentum by pummeling us with the ugly truths of the democratic system and the many nooks and crannies it offers for con men, charlatans, and anyone else driven by the twin lusts of money and power. Abramoff lusted after both, and he accrued them with great success in multiple ways, manipulating those around him and taking advantage of any situation that could benefit him. He was a career opportunist who saw himself as the living embodiment of the American dream, and when Casino Jack focuses on those grandiose delusions, it has an effervescent power. As Abramoff, Kevin Spacey holds the center of the film with a big, gutsy performance that constantly threatens to slip over the top, but never quite does, even when he is at his most flamboyantly arrogant. He establishes Jack’s presence in that opening bathroom scene, and he never lets up from there, wheeling and dealing his way through a house of cards that we know will collapse. It is only a matter of time.
Abramoff is surrounded by other power players, including his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), a younger and in some ways more aggressive and reckless version of himself. Both men relish their victories like fine wine (although Scanlon is tacky enough to drink merlot with ice cubes in it), and they go after their targets with gusto. When the film opens, they are moving into the new terrain of lobbying for Native American groups with gambling interests, which enriches them and turns them onto new business enterprises, including a gambling cruise ship, a string of high-end restaurants, a kosher deli, and a Jewish school (the manner in which Abramoff uses his integrity-defying charade to help fund projects born out of religious faith and personal convictions is particularly telling of his inherent contradictions). Abramoff had already dabbled in numerous businesses, including Hollywood, where he co-wrote and produced the clumsy Dolph Lundgren action vehicle Red Scoprion in 1989, and you get the sense that there is literally nothing he wouldn’t do. This includes hiring Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), a sleazy businessman with mob ties, to run the cruise ship. The fact that Abramoff has his hands in so many pots at so many times says less about him as a man than it does about the larger system, in which organized crime, legal gambling, and governmental lobbying blend together in ways that make them impossible to separate.
Using Abramoff’s outrageous antics to put on display the inherent corruptibility of the system gives Casino Jack a biting charge that fits right in with our cynical, politically volatile times. The fact that Hickenlooper tends to play a lot of it as dark comedy softens some of the edge because we get to laugh off our outrage, which makes the film more manageable as mainstream entertainment. However, too much of the film seems like a calculated potshot at conservative politics (especially those associated with the Christian right), with plenty of jabs being given to the Bush Administration, although the worst characterization of all is saved for House majority leader Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), who is depicted as an idiot-grinning Southern-fried hypocrite who uses Abramoff as much as Abramoff uses him (DeLay’s recent conviction on money laundering charges is even more timely than the real-life Abramoff being released from prison just before the film premiered). While these potshots are not unwarranted or off the mark, they feel too opportunistic and misplaced, particularly in the way they draw our attention away from the sickness of the system in favor of a few caricatured conservatives whose backroom dealings share little in common with their holier-than-thou public personas.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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