Directed By: George Hickenlooper
Written By: Norman Snider
Produced By: Gary Howsam, Bill Marks, George Zakk
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz, Graham Greene, Spencer Garrett, Rachelle Lefevre
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes
Release Date: December 17, 2010
Review Date: December 17, 2010
In what should be a pivotal climactic moment, Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) testifies before the Senate regarding his numerous corruption charges. After repeatedly invoking his fifth amendment rights in lieu of answering the questions, Abramoff gets fed up. He starts calling out the senators sitting in front of him for their hypocrisy — for the fact that they willingly, even gleefully took his donations for years before suddenly turning their backs on him when the story of his rampant, vile misdeeds went public. This should be a cathartic, dramatically satisfying moment, but it’s not. Why? Because it never happened, and anybody with even cursory familiarity with the story knows it never happened. Abramoff did attempt to call out the corrupt hypocrites in Congress, but only after his imprisonment and in the form of a one-sided book by Boston Globe reporter Gary S. Chafetz (to whom Abramoff granted exclusive interviews). If the goal is to paint a portrait of the real Abramoff, it seems to me that the sort of person who would accuse men of wrongdoing to their faces, on national television, is very different from the sort of person who would do it both behind their backs and via a third party (Chafetz). Making big, obvious, easily verifiable changes like these undermines the truth of what happened, in ways that go far beyond mere artistic license.
Such is the overall problem with Casino Jack, which tries very hard to make a light, quirky comedy out of information that should enrage and disgust its audience. It’s too much like a movie to feel like anything we’re watching is true, but it’s too much like a docudrama to have the depth and nuance found in high-quality drama. A shallow portrait of a man the film alleges is shallow (though it reveals the occasional detail, which it subsequently tries to undermine, that shows him as much more complex than anyone involved in this film gives him credit for) may seem thematically appropriate, but it’s not very compelling.
If you’ve read a single article about Jack Abramoff, this film will tell you nothing new. Abramoff, a schlocky Hollywood producer (whose only success, Red Scorpion, features an alarming pro-apartheid undercurrent matching Abramoff’s actual, publicly espoused views — but that’s not something you’ll learn from this film) turned powerful Washington lobbyist, works on behalf of Indian casinos, hence the nickname. He’s grown tired of barely making ends meet (in this world, that means only being able to own a mansion and one Mercedes) while the clients he represents make billions, so he starts a combination of overcharging the tribes he represents and pitting the tribes against each other to distract them with competition long enough to ignore the millions he’s skimming from their profits.
Abramoff works closely with Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), a lobbyist of a similar breed obsessed with the finer things in life but unable to afford them on a meager lobbyist salary. See, he can only afford a huge McMansion and a nice Porsche — not the largest mansion in Delaware, which he desperately wants to buy in order to please his increasingly jealous fiancée, Emily (Rachelle Lefevre). Together, Abramoff and Scanlon use sleazy, Mob-connected businessman Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz) as a front to buy a shady cruise line that takes its passengers into international waters, drops anchor, and lets them gamble to their hearts’ content while Abramoff and Scanlon reap the huge rewards of an illegal casino syndicate. Things go awry when Kidan sets up a phony wire transfer for the down payment and faces the ire of current owner Gus Boulis (Daniel Kash).
Surrounding their shady business dealings, Abramoff and Scanlon spend, spend, spend. Their lives revolve around accumulating wealth to buy things they couldn’t otherwise afford. The film could have used this notion as an opportunity to explore the contemporary economic culture of credit overextension and greed. Abramoff and Scanlon lead comfortable lives, well beyond the means of most in the middle class, but it’s not enough for them, so they steal what they can’t afford. In a way, that’s a pathetic variation on the outdated American dream, but the late director, George Hickenlooper, has no real interest in exploring such heady thematic ideas. The film’s only novel idea is the vague notion that Abramoff’s move from Hollywood to Washington makes perfect sense — both places are “dream factories” where powerful people insulated by yes-men spend tons of money to perpetuate fictitious versions of reality. Even this notion comes about with such subtlety that, based on the content of the rest of the film, I have to imagine its presence is accidental.
Because, you see, this is a film that tells a story people already know with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It allows liberals to pat themselves on the back and grants conservatives yet another reason to hate liberals. This film uses Abramoff’s story to aim its sights lazily at the Bush administration and the Republican party. Hickenlooper repeatedly pans across photos of Abramoff glad-handing with Bush, Reagan, Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), and other Republicans, while totally ignoring Abramoff’s dealings with (admittedly conservative-leaning) southern Democrats. In other words, the film misses the point that Abramoff’s story symbolizes everything that’s wrong with both parties, both houses of Congress, lobbies, and the American political infrastructure. Bush, DeLay, and John McCain (who, in an inexplicable choice that serves no clear artistic purpose, “plays himself” in the form of CSPAN footage and a back-of-the-head body double — all the other major players, well known in the news, are played by actors, and anyone who watches Mad Men knows Ryan Cutrona is a perfect choice to play McCain) played their parts, but anyone who thinks Abramoff’s story is new or isn’t being repeated as I write this is willfully ignorant.
I wouldn’t care about the political content were it not so cloying or smugly self-congratulatory. Even if it were, I might have given the politics a pass if Hickenlooper had made a better film. He assembles a perfect cast, led by Spacey and Pepper, but that doesn’t make up for the frustratingly one-dimensional characters. The film presents both Abramoff and Scanlon as delusional morons, constantly quoting movies and doing bad celebrity impersonations at inappropriate times to give the impression they’re either divorced from reality or vying to replace Steve Carell on The Office. They both fancy themselves the stars of their own movies, an idea that’s pounded home with the aforementioned sledgehammer (up to and including Abramoff quoting 1979’s …And Justice for All — which the film rips off wholesale — in the climactic scene). Beyond the basic portrait of them as emotionally bereft sociopaths who think they’re living inside a movie where they’re the heroes crusading for justice with other people’s money, the film makes no attempt to illuminate them as people.
Am I crazy for wishing I’d left the screening hoping to, at the very least, understand why Abramoff did the things he did? The film supplies the easy answer — he wanted money to buy things, because he was greedy — but never challenges itself to dig deeper and find the source of that greed. It simply revels in his bad behavior, an air of superiority permeating every single scene, without ever trying to make him empathetic (not to be confused with sympathetic, something Abramoff will likely never be, no matter how much he protests about a conspiracy to make him the fall guy).
Then again, why should I expect that from a film that doesn’t even bother to get the length of Abramoff’s jail sentence right?
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.