Keven Spacey and Barry Pepper in Casino Jack
Remember in the 1990s when Kevin Spacey was an actor you wanted to see? He’s terrific in Glengarry Glen Ross, Swimming with Sharks, The Ref, The Usual Suspects, Seven, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty. Alas, the new millennium has not been so kind. Pay it Forward, K-PAX, The Shipping News, The Life of David Gale and Beyond the Sea are movies that ruin careers. The good news is that he gives an entertaining performance in Casino Jack, George Hickenlooper’s true-ish story of imprisoned super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The bad news is that he seems to be nothing at all like the real Abramoff and the movie itself is an unfocused, ill-advised dud. It wants to be some kind of breezy satire, but it’s as subtle as Frankenstein’s monster doing a tap dance and not as funny.
Earlier this year, Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money did a passable job of outlining Abramoff’s misdeeds. While it only properly indicted the system of which Abramoff was merely a symptom in the final 5 minutes, it still provided a decent sketch of the man and gave a galling reminder of how government really functions. Hickenlooper’s film on the other hand, rushes through the facts while failing to humanize the man we all know from C-SPAN.
Part of the problem is that Spacey’s characterization doesn’t even appear to fit the real man. Forget that he’s nothing like Abramoff physically, he at all times appears to be playing Kevin Spacey. He gets the shark part right, but there’s none of Abramoff’s sliminess.
The other problem is the film never seems to know what tone to strike. The humor is ham fisted while the drama is inert. Barry Pepper is about the only one who seems to get it just right. He has some fun as Abramoff’s partner Michael Scanlon – he clearly enjoys a semi-comic turn – and he never overdoes it. By contrast however, shlubby Jon Lovitz feels like he’s been pulled from an entirely different movie. He’s intermittently amusing, but too broad for the rest of the movie which would’ve been better served by a drier touch.
In a nutshell, the unfunny and un-illuminating Casino Jack is a complete waste of an important subject. It’s never aggressively awful, but it just kind of lays there pathetically which is worse. It doesn’t have much to say until the very end when we’re supposed to be outraged that Abramoff is ultimately not the worst guy in the story. In a landscape overflowing with baffoons worthy of satire – Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed – Casino Jack takes a shot and misses. If you want to learn something, watch Gibney’s documentary. If you want to be entertained, look elsewhere.