Saturday, April 16, 2011

Casino Jack: Grade C


Casino Jack (2010)

Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, John Lovitz, Rachelle Lefevre, Kelly Preston, Graham Greene. Director George Hickenlooper.

Spacey is Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist convicted in 2006 of fraud, conspiracy, and corruption. He was recently released from prison, after serving only half of his six year sentence (how does that work?). The movie wants to be a biopic of Abramoff, perhaps with the goal of humanizing a figure who, to many, is little more than an amoral, money-grubbing beast. That goal is mostly realized, thanks to Spacey’s trademark intelligent, smiling mendacity. His performance carries this otherwise weak movie. His right-hand man (Pepper), and his hired front man (Lovitz), are humorous and enjoyable cartoon characters that cannot be taken seriously, although those actors give a hundred percent.

The movie is a tragically missed opportunity. The really interesting part of the Abramoff story is not the guy’s personal life and character. There is nothing distinctive or interesting about him as a person. He is an ordinary, megalomaniacal parasite who doesn’t understand why “the law” singles him out for arbitrary punishment. We’ve seen that character in the movies a hundred times, and the dialog here is accordingly stale, cliched, and deadening.

The really interesting story is not how Abramoff brushes his teeth or likes to quote Michael Corleone, but the culture of Washington corruption and big bucks lobbying. The movie makes a few allusions, showing Abramoff’s close relationship with Tom Delay (without mentioning that Delay is now in prison for corruption and money laundering), and it takes a few vague potshots at John McCain. There is nothing at all about his numerous meetings with George W. Bush, the conviction of several White House staffers for bribery and corruption, and few details about the fraud he perpetrated on several Indian tribes.

You cannot see in this movie any actual crimes being committed, investigated, charged, or prosecuted. So in the end, the viewer is just as mystified as poor Jack about why he is in jail. That’s bad writing, and it’s a shame, because this story could have been as gripping as All The President’s Men, or any other political thriller. To get a more comprehensive view of the Abramoff scandal, one would be better off with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a nonfiction documentary and a better movie.

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