Mark Reviews Movies

CASINO JACK

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: George Hickenlooper

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovtiz, Rachelle Lefevre, Spencer Garret, Graham Greene

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some violence and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 12/17/10 (limited); 12/31/10 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 30, 2010

Of less interest than the pedestrian documentary of a similar title about the same subject earlier this year, Casino Jack casts Jack Abramoff as a man who would cast himself in the role of a tragic hero. The man who inspired the term "super-lobbyist" loves to quote movies as much as or more than watching them, is unapologetic for his brazen approach to life, and believes he did nothing wrong or at least nothing worse than what everyone else on K Street has done because they all believe they're fulfilling the American way.

Firstly, they're petitioning the government, as per their interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution (Not as individuals but as representatives of special interest groups—this was back before the Supreme Court forgot where they put their dictionary). Secondly, they're making money by hook or by crook, and they help influence the people who help determine who the crooks are.

And screenwriter Norman Snider is just fine and dandy with all of this, because Abramoff is also two things: a most blatant symbol of corruption and a larger-than-life character. The first makes his story easy to shorthand, while the result of that and the second characteristic makes his actions easier to forgive.

It's a strange movie that is so clearly outraged by corruption (Even this Abramoff must use every fiber of his being to hold back calling nearly an entire Senate committee a bunch of hypocrites for condemning him while the members have reaped the benefits of his and others' lobbying for years) but so quick forgive its subject under one of his arguments. Yes, Jack Abramoff may have done wrong, but those politicians sure did and continue to do worse.

Kevin Spacey plays the lobbyist in a performance that rises far above the material around him. His Abramoff is a man who only minces words when his livelihood is on the line (Even cursing up a storm in front of a tour group at the White House while waiting to meet with the President), maintains a devout Jewish faith (His second question in federal lockup: Do they serve kosher meals?) and family life, and can turn sweatshop work conditions into a positive (The workers' families in China aren't complaining about the money that goes back to them).

The movie follows Abramoff's shadier dealings with Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), the Republican Congressman and House Majority Leader who was just recently convicted of money laundering (coincidentally, a little over a week before Abramoff's sentence ended), to maintain a designer jeans factory in Mariana Islands, a casino cruise ship owner (Daniel Kash) who's facing tough times, and one particular Native American tribe with an interest in keeping their casino flourishing. Money, favors, meals, and tickets pass around, and his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) thinks they should start taking a little more money in for themselves. "Is it legal," Abramoff asks after Scanlon suggests the plan to charge this tribe an outrageous fee for their services, but he's completely on board immediately afterward.

With scenes like this one, the screenplay is a problem. Heavy on unpolished expository dialogue that fills in details about character and situational background ("We need someone like you with a background in gaming," "It's like it was only yesterday we were in the College Republicans," "You only produced two Dolph Lundgren movies"), Snider's writing is choppy and blunt.

The extent of Abramoff's actions are vague at best (A familiarity with the actual story is mandatory, and for that, the aforementioned documentary fits the bill), and the movie seems to try to skirt by on the oddities. There's Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), a former mattress franchise owner who becomes purposefully involved in organized crime and accidentally in a murder, and how Scanlon's womanizing ways are the duo's downfall.

Though it's a showcase for Spacey, Casino Jack is a shallow, confused account of the political game at its worst—also known as business as usual.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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