In Casino Jack, Kevin Spacey gives an enjoyably hammy, grandstanding performance as Jack Abramoff, the crafty Washington, D.C., lobbyist who managed to build a mini-empire that included restaurants and offshore gambling enterprises before the FBI caught on to him and sent him to prison for conspiracy, tax evasion and fraud. Spacey, oozing snaky charm and a charismatic, if reprehensible, air of superiority, takes to the role with relish. He makes this anti-hero likable, even as he’s flagrantly breaking the law and scamming Native American tribes out of millions for political favors he has no intention of delivering.
The performances are the key in Casino Jack, which was directed by the late George Hickenlooper, who died unexpectedly in October at 47. Working from a script by Norman Snider, Hickenlooper relies primarily on dialogue to lay out Abramoff’s fiendishly complex swindles, and he borrows the fast pace and dizzying style of Martin Scorsese’s Casino to chart the rise and fall of a man who succumbed to his vanity and greed. Barry Pepper, who made a deep impression with just a few minutes of screen time in True Grit, is terrific as Michael Scanlon, Abramoff’s business partner, who is just as drunk on power as his boss, and the ingenious casting of the under-used Jon Lovitz as a wormy small timer who screws up his shot at playing in the big leagues pays off in scenes that are funny and horrific.
But Casino Jack fails at its most critical mission: Laying out in clear detail exactly how and when Abramoff broke the law. Unlike last year’s documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which clearly laid out the culture that bred lobbyists such as Abramoff and explained why they felt invincible, Casino Jack feels like a superficial gloss on a complex subject. The movie is more concerned with delivering another critical blow to the Bush administration and its hypocrisy: Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and Ralph Reed are all accounted for in the film, but anyone without a working knowledge of the case will have trouble connecting the dots. Abramoff’s crimes were probably too complex for the confines of a feature film as slick and eager to entertain as this one.
The movie is never boring, and there’s great fun in watching an energized, rakish Spacey cutting loose again. But the picture is a muddle: The broad humor often feels misplaced, the byzantine political shenanigans are confusing, and when the plot takes a sudden, violent turn, the change in tone is bewildering. Casino Jack is simply too ambitious for its own good: Sometimes, truth is too strange for fiction.
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Spencer Garrett, Maury Chaykin.
Director: George Hickenlooper.
Screenwriter: Norman Snider.
Producers: Gary Howsam, Bill Marks, George Zakk.
An Art Takes Over release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, violence, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Intracoastal; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Delray Beach, Shadowood, Gardens.