Casino Jack (ATO Pictures, R)

My suspicion is that, like so many others, the director got conned by his silver-tongued subject. 





Casino Jack, George Hickenlooper’s fictionalized take on lobbyist Jack Abramoff, starts off promisingly enough. An immaculately-attired Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) is furiously brushing his teeth in a public restroom while delivering a diatribe which encapsulates in two minutes everything you need to know about him.


Beginning in a conspiratorial tone (“You know, I’ve done a lot of reading and studying and praying and I’ve come to a few conclusions I want to share.”), Abramoff becomes increasingly agitated while hitting the various notes of the self-righteous paranoid including self-pity (“We do more because we have to. The deck was always stacked against us.”), scorn for most of humanity (“You’re either a big-leaguer or you’re a slave clawing your way onto the C train.”) and self-justification in the guise of family values (“I will not allow my family to be slaves.”). The monologue builds in a crescendo of hostility and frat-boy profanity (“You say I’m selfish—fuck you! …You say I’ve got a big ego—fuck you twice!”) before ending in aggressive patriotism followed by a non-sequitur hilarious to everyone but the speaker himself: “I’m humbly grateful for the gifts I’ve received here in America, the greatest country on this planet! I’m Jack Abramoff and, oh yeah, I work out every day.”


This scene is also a masterpiece of cinematography and production design, from the subtle creep-in and use of Spacey’s reflected image to the extreme close-ups of the somewhat-scarred faucet and color-coordinated toothpaste and toothbrush. Unfortunately Casino Jack is almost two hours long, and the remainder doesn’t begin to live up to the quality of the opening.


Casino Jack suffers above all from the refusal to pick a lane; as a fact-based narrative it’s a mess while as a character study it’s shallow and unsatisfying. Even more fatally, as a comedy it’s not particularly funny. That goes double if you know anything about the amount of harm done by Abramoff and his associates. What remains are a few well-done set pieces in a film that is overall more exasperating than enjoyable.


Problem number one is that Casino Jack tries to cram in too much information, quickly becoming a succession of scams and junkets and actors playing historical personages including Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, and Michael Scanlon. The mind soon wearies of trying to keep it all straight and turns instead to wondering how a story that was told so elegantly in Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money could become so incoherent in this fictional treatment.


Problem number two is that Casino Jack is not willing to take a hard look at its central figure. Instead it settles for creating a portrait of Abramoff as he would no doubt like to be seen. Hickenlooper has said that he interviewed Abramoff in prison for 30 hours and my suspicion is that, like so many others, the director got conned by his silver-tongued subject. The result is a superficial apologia for a man who became rich cheating American Indian tribes, promoting internet gambling and enabling sweatshops in Saipan.


Wait, who’s that on the phone? Bernie Madoff wants Hickenlooper to do his biopic next? Sorry, Bernie, the director has gone to the next world, but screenwriter Norman Snider is still available to write a script about how pious and charitable you are while conveniently downplaying all that money you stole from retired people and charities. Yes, Abramoff’s $20 million makes him a mere piker next to your $65 billion, and I’m sure the movie-going public will be delighted to hear your side of things as well.


But back to Casino Jack. No one can play the hurt puppy dog as well as Spacey who also manages to suggest that Abramoff had a clinical mental illness which loosened his grip on reality rather than simply being crazy like a fox. As portrayed in this film, Jack Abramoff was a well-meaning, soft-spoken, religious family man who got corrupted by bad companions, principally Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper). Inclusion of a clip of the real Jack Abramoff in the credit sequence is a fatal error by the director, because not only is the real Abramoff far more interesting than Spacey’s twitchy portrayal, it also invalidates the whole “Abramoff as innocent victim” vibe of the film.


Snider’s screenplay persistently portrays Abramoff as being better than his associates, putting offensive lines in their mouths while letting his central character off the hook. So we get Grover Norquist (Jeffrey R. Smith) asking rhetorically “If some Native Americans choose to live in Third World conditions, why is that my problem?” and Scanlon pointing out, with regard to one of their clients, that “three years ago his tribe was eating pine needles and selling key chains.” Abramoff, by way of contrast, feels that the Native Americans deserve a break due to “300 years of genocide.” That doesn’t keep him from stealing their money, however.


Casino Jack rings most false in its attempts to elicit our sympathy for Jack Abramoff. Poor baby, he was fine with cheating people who trusted him but when he comes up with the short end of the stick it’s a moral outrage (a much-cited imaginary scene near the end of the film is the best example of this). For someone who loved to play the game he didn’t seem to understand it very well (Congressmen protect each other-duh!), but in reality Abramoff didn’t come out of it badly. He served less than four years in a federal minimum-security prison (you can get more for dealing pot in many states) and now he’s out on parole and peddling kosher pizza in Baltimore. | Sarah Boslaugh


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