Film Review: Casino Jack

The Abramoff affair reads like a Hollywood screenplay, but this feature rarely fulfills its promise. Kevin Spacey is fun to watch playing a man by turns cunning, corny and crazy.

Life may be stranger than fiction, and in the case of the disgraced Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff it surely is, but its depiction in the late George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack doesn’t ring true. At least it doesn’t sing true; Hickenlooper (Factory Girl) never finds the right voice to dramatize this recent, heavily reported scandal. A documentary on the subject, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, by Alex Gibney, was released earlier this year, and Bill Moyers has explored the subject in depth on PBS.

Still, it’s a fascinating, convoluted and extremely disturbing story of hubris and corruption that, sadly, continues unabated in our nation’s capital with other players, now that Abramoff and some of his cronies are serving time. And Casino Jack has in its corner the charismatic master of cold-blooded con men, Kevin Spacey, which must gratify the Beverly Hills High alum and former movie producer at its center. Spacey and the screenplay, by Norman Snider, manage to make this manic, narcissistic white-collar criminal sympathetic, which, considering his outrageous greed and cynical manipulation of the system, is both troubling and an achievement of sorts. Hickenlooper makes it clear that all politicians are in on the game, and has Spacey’s Abramoff making an argument that lobbyists actually serve a useful purpose in a democracy: They get Congress to act. But no one is suggesting they act like Abramoff.

Abramoff comes off better than his slick, frenetic partner, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), who shares Abramoff’s right-wing, Republican politics and corrupt business ethics, but cheats on his girlfriend, and, at least in the film, has no redeeming qualities. When Abramoff suggests that it’s bad karma to kick a man when he’s down, Scanlon gleefully advises him to not only kick him, but “roll him up in a rug and throw him off a cliff.”

Abramoff is presented as far more complex: a well-educated, devoted family man, who took up Orthodox Judaism at age 12 after seeing the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, and who raises money for Jewish charities and a Jewish day school. Yet he blithely swindles millions from casino-owning American Indian tribes, lobbies in support of sweatshop owners in the Northern Marianas Islands, opens not one but two D.C. restaurants he can ill afford, and forms ties with shady businessmen to take over offshore casinos. Enter Jon Lovitz as Adam Kidan, a sleazy disbarred lawyer and former mattress mogul, who, along with Scanlon’s scorned girlfriend, Emily Miller (Rachelle Lefevre), leads to Abramoff’s undoing. Lovitz, looking appropriately dumpy and disheveled, brings his serious comedy to the role, adding off-kilter energy the film sorely needs.

After a terrific start, with a suited Spacey ranting to himself in front of a mirror about American mediocrity, the disease of the dull, and how he is not going to let his family be slaves, the pace slackens. Too many scenes employ the cloying incidental music that occurs on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives.” While there are many sharp lines, the screenplay strains for Jerry Maguire wit and pathos but falls short. There’s a lot of filler, such as location shots and one too many scenes of an exasperated Emily looking at the peeling walls of Scanlon’s fixer-upper trophy house by the sea. Towards the end, as the plot takes on a pulp-fiction unreality, things improve. The great (now late) character actor Maury Chaykin steals the show in his brief turn as a soft-spoken mobster.