“Casino Jack” stars Kevin Spacey as the former super-lobbyist and later prisoner Jack Abramoff. The movie was directed by George Hickenlooper (who died sadly only a couple of months before the film was released). Based on actual events, “Casino Jack” tells the story of how Abramoff and his unscrupulous pals plotted to become the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, and how they schemed to get rich through a variety of seedy ventures (if not murder). The movie chronicles their downfall along with all the political hypocrisy surrounding these events.
It’s a sometimes fascinating and sometimes funny biopic. However, the film feels derivative, as though we’ve seen it before. Yes, we know that politicians and lobbyists are mostly a bunch of crooks. Yes, we know that our government has been high-jacked by special interests. And yes, we do need to be reminded of these things via film, through art and from the press. But this film doesn’t really provide anything revelatory. It’s an enjoyable, thoughtful and an important movie, but one without much poetry, art or–in the end–greatness.
Spacey’s performance as Abramhoff is very good. It’s a bit of a thankless role–the life of an unlikeable, middle-aged, greedy Washington lobbyist–which is why Spacey deserves some recognition for it. He provides the right balance: a man with conniving greed, power-hungry egoism, plus a sense of humor. The temptation would be for an actor to chew-up the sets with an over-the-top characterization. But Spacey pulls back just enough so we can see that Abramhoff was a real, tragic and flawed human being. For example, Abramhoff likes to do corny, cringe-worthy impersonations from old movies throughout the film. (In real life he produced a couple of movies before he was a lobbyist.) One of the funnier lines from the film is, “Washington is like Hollywood, but with uglier faces.”
The set-chewing in “Casino Jack” was left to Barry Pepper who portrays Michael Scanlon. He has scenes of truly good acting in the movie; his performance is solid, but not particularly nuanced. Pepper’s Scanlon is somewhat one-note-ish throughout most of the film, with greed being the note. The scene-stealer in the film, however, is Jon Lovitz. I’d almost pay to see the movie again just to watch Lovitz. Admittedly, I am pre-disposed to liking him. 1992’s “Mom and Dad Save the World” is one of my guilty pleasures. Lovitz plays the smarmy Adam Kidan, a defunct mattress salesman with loose ties to the mob. No one plays losers (or underplays them with hilarious irony) like Lovitz. He’s a hoot.
Hickenlooper, who purportedly met with Abramhoff before making the movie, wears his political opinions on his sleeve. The director’s point with “Casino Jack” is well-meant and well-taken. The “Los Angeles Times” provided several quotes from an interview conducted with the director before his death. Hickenlooper said that in America, individualism has become a culture of avarice. He continued, “It’s seen in every aspect of our culture . . . And that kind of feasting and ravenous thinking has seeped into the pores of our culture such that we’ve lost a sense of ourselves . . . Most people, 95% of people, are good people. It’s the 5% who get seduced by power . . . Abraham Lincoln said if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Given Lincoln’s suggested test of character, Abramoff failed. In real life, now that he’s (recently) out of prison, his life will begin anew. I honestly wish him well. But I doubt that I would take my hand off my wallet or turn my back on him if I ever met him.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
2010, Rated R, 108 minutes, Biography, Comedy, Crime