Friday, January 21, 2011


At the beginning of Casino Jack, Jack Abramoff stands in front of a mirror & spews furious defiance at his own detractors, real or imagined. Abramoff is played by the great Kevin Spacey, who hammers out his lines in his usual grand style, precise yet fierce & fervent, & even if you know how particularly odious Abramoff’s shenanigans were, you can’t help but feel a little invigorated by Spacey’s readings. You may feel that you’ve always wanted to wither your own naysayers—real or imagined—in the same way.

Abramoff was the W. Bush-era lobbyist & Republican activist who pled guilty to a couple of fraud & tax felonies in 2006 after a really dizzying career of corruption, swindling, bribery & literal double-dealing, much of it aimed at Indian gaming interests, though he was also connected to the sale of a Florida-based casino-cruise operation that led to a gangland murder. The same set of scandals took down Congressmen Bob Ney of Ohio as well as various Bush-era White House & congressional staffers, & Abramoff’s partner & friend, Michael Scanlon.

Casino Jack was the final film of director George Hickenlooper, who died in October of last year (just before his cousin John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was elected Governor of Colorado). Hickenlooper & screenwriter Norman Snider’s extremely compressed dramatization presents the revolting parasitism of Abramoff & his pals in an ironically brisk & breezy manner, like a screwball comedy. Thus the movie lets the title character off easy in its very style.

Really, one could argue that simply being played by Spacey is being let off easy, no matter who you are. Abramoff must have been an effective hustler, but it’s hard to imagine that he had the seductive charisma that Spacey gives the role anywhere but in his own mind. Snider’s dialogue is too often of the “Hey, remember how I used to be a movie producer after I was in college but before I moved here to D.C. & became a high-powered lobbyist…” school of exposition, but Spacey’s delivery, peppered with frequent movie-star impressions, gives it a charge.

Not that his is the only good acting in Casino Jack. Kelly Preston is surprisingly complex as his willfully ignorant wife. The versatile Barry Pepper, fresh from a marvelous supporting turn in True Grit, is likewise excellent here as fidgety, haunted Michael Scanlon. Jon Lovitz, as Abramoff’s stooge Adam Kidan, gives a full-fledged, & very funny, farcical performance, & in what must have been one of his last roles, the late, wonderful Maury Chaykin has a quiet, unforced menace as a mobster.

These actors make Casino Jack worth seeing, but somehow, perhaps in a (worthy) effort to avoid Oliver-Stone-style liberal harangue, it seems finally to evade its subject, & it doesn’t quite emerge the classic it could have been. Abramoff was so hyperactive & scattered in his greed & connivance, such an overachiever in sliminess, that organizing it all into a coherent movie narrative can’t have been easy. In real life, many of us found the exact nature of his crimes a bit vague & hard to grasp, to his advantage; he seemed like a creep, but we weren’t sure exactly why we should be mad at him. Casino Jack, though energetic & entertaining, is no more than a quick sketch of the answer to that question.

The film does make at least two trenchant observations, however: First, it points out the frequency with which neoconservatives, for all their supposed contempt for Hollywood, have skulls stuffed with cinematic fantasy. Abramoff & Scanlon can’t seem to go five minutes without a movie quote, & their favorite seems to be The Godfather.

Second, at the end of the movie Abramoff gets to unload yet another torrent of bitter high dudgeon at a different pack of hypocritical persecutors—his former clients & cronies, who, with the exception of some careless ones, remained (& remain) in power. Abramoff’s fall certainly didn’t put a dent in the problem—the crisis in American democracy, really—that he represents. That he was, perhaps, more flamboyant & brazen in his disgusting mischief than his current equivalents in Washington only makes him preferable to them.

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