Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's especially sad that George Hickenlooper's impressive Casino Jack opened in the United States only two days before his untimely passing. Hickenlooper's film version of the downfall of 'super lobbyist' Jack Abramoff is a splendid exposé of the corrupt extremes of government but an even keener portrait of the madness for success that drives so many ambitious men to such ignominious fates. Actor Kevin Spacey seemed to have a role in every good film released until his 2004 Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, after which he worked on the stage more and appeared mostly in glorified supporting film parts. Casino Jack brings him back to the center in a big way. I'm not sure why the film didn't get more attention that it did -- although the (also excellent) Jack Abramoff documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money came out at almost the same time. Hickenlooper's film is intelligent, amusing and engrossing.
Casino Jack begins with a Raging Bull- like monologue in which Jack Abramoff (Spacey) rehearses a fierce defense of his arrogant lifestyle. He's brushing his teeth before a mirror, a staging choice that also relates to J. Pierrepont Finch fortifying his ego in the old musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Jack and his cohort Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper of the True Grit remake) are high-powered lobbyists exercising their constitutional right to petition congress. What they actually do is sell influence and buy votes -- scores of legislators happily accept their hefty campaign donations in exchange for supporting the special interests that front the money. Abramoff and Scanlon extract vast sums from Indian tribes by creating the illusion that only Abramoff's connections can save their gambling casinos from disadvantageous legislation. The pair rakes in huge fees yet is always on the brink of bankruptcy. Scanlon grossly overspends while Abramoff funnels millions he hasn't got into restauraunts, elaborate plans for Jewish private schools, recreation centers, etc. Meanwhile his patient wife Pamela (Kelly Preston) can't get a straight answer why, with so much money in play, they are missing mortgage payments on their home.
This house of cards can't stay up forever, even with the assistance of influential Republicans, bosom pals like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), a Texan who totes a reverend with him wherever he goes. The pair's greedy Indian tribe scam unravels. Abramoff unwisely recruits Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), an unreliable sleaze with mob ties, to front an unethical purchase of a fleet of gambling ships. The seller is a Greek gangster who wants a big payoff but has no intention of giving up control. Kidan hires his own gangster Big Tony (Maury Chaykin) with the aim of keeping the Greek in line. Scanlon's girlfriend Emily Miller (Rachelle Lefevre of Twilight) stays mum about all the corruption she witnesses until she discovers that Scanlon has been seeing another woman. When several scandals become public at the same time, Tom DeLay cuts his ties to Abramoff and condemns him in public. Jack tells Pam that he still has friends in Washington, but her tearful response is to shout back that they have no friends.
In movie terms, Abramoff's appalling modus operandi is almost identical to that of the fictional Sidney Falco from the corruption classic Sweet Smell of Success. Both men aggressively assert that "the best of everything is good enough for me." Both play the exact same telephone scam, impressing potential clients by faking friendly phone calls with important contacts. Like the noir hustler Harry Fabian of Night and the City, Abramoff's 'business deals' are a pyramid of deceitful scams. These hollow men self-destruct when they begin to believe their own lies.
Hollywood is often charged with unfair attacks on American values, when the truth is that large-scale movies about government crooks, liars and high-office holders almost always bend over backwards to be fair. Norman Snider's sharp screenplay gives Jack Abramoff every benefit of the doubt, but there's no way to excuse his shameful behavior. He and Scanlon talk the talk of Republican family values while congratulating each other on their feats of hateful deceit. Abramoff's payoffs have greased a path to the top levels of the Republican food chain, where he seals his deals by treating Indian chiefs to photo ops with President Bush. We're interested to learn that Abramoff is also a practicing, devout Jew who seems sincere about his charity ideas. Jack almost seems to be trying to buy his way back into his maker's good graces, but his checks keep bouncing. Scanlon is a much simpler slimeball, a cheap fraud tied to nothing but his own greed. He gets himself and Abramoff in way over their heads with the gambling boat scheme. Scanlon is shocked when his lamebrain patter doesn't impress the Miami mobsters. Abramoff is equally shocked to find that his new partner Kidan is indeed unsavory, and a dangerous loose cannon to boot.
Director Hickenlooper alternated between feature projects and excellent nonfiction work, such as the famed Apocalypse Now docu Hearts of Darkness. In Casino Jack he hit his stride as a front-rank director. The film unspools at a brisk pace and maintains our keen interest at all times. We can barely believe these men can be so brazenly venal, and that business as usual in Washington could possibly be so corrupt. Screenwriter Snider somehow conveys mountains of information without resorting to bald blocks of expository dialogue. Characters tend to state facts at precisely the moment that we want to know more.
With every scene change Hickenlooper gives us a convincing image of a new social environment. The congressional offices seem abuzz with the business of influence -- men shaking hands and exchanging envelopes while praising the Lord. In the empty casino ballroom we see the Chippewa council resisting Abramoff's hard-sell demand for a million dollar retainer. In his synagogue Abramoff is a model of propriety, generosity and good will, a stance that confuses his wife when he partners with the obvious lowlife Adam Kidan. Best of all is the atmosphere in the gambling ship's casino room. The colors, the style of entertainment and the faces of the help give us a strong sense of a place just sleazy enough to repel any self-respecting patron. Armed with Snider's sharp script, Hickenlooper is able to sketch great characters with just a few lines of dialogue. The cagey Greek and the amusingly practical Big Tony regard one other with pure ethnic loathing. Like everybody else in this chain of sharks, Big Tony smells an opportunity to cut himself in on a good thing. And he doesn't care about Abramoff's image problems back in Washington.
Kevin Spacey once again has a character he can dig into, a glib glad-hander who underneath is a ravening wolf. Spacy can make Abramoff shift instantaneously from calling his Indian clients "monkeys" to playing devout and self-righteous. He communicates the rage of a man who believes that his ability to make money appear from nowhere places him on a higher level of entitlement. It's typical that, when things are most hopeless, Abramoff treats himself to a luxurious bubble bath. We know he's lost his moorings when, in the middle of an impossibly lame movie pitch, he takes a call and tells his studio contacts that he his next appointment is to give himself up to the FBI. Abramoff is barely aware that his impressionable daughter is by his side reacting to all of this insanity. Spacey makes all this sociopathic behavior seem natural.
The final "author's touch" in this well-directed picture occurs during Jack Abramoff's grilling before a congressional hearing. Although we can too easily guess the narrative trick being played, Jack's mental detour from reality serves an important function. Exposing individual crooks in the lobbyist game solves nothing -- the elected officials condemning Jack from the dais are the same ones that eagerly accepted his bribes. The all-pervasive corruption allows Jack to regard himself as a scapegoat and an underdog, not a crook. The film's last shot could almost carry a superimposed title reading, "...to be continued." The makers of Casino Jack know that Abramoff will be back.
Fox Home Video's Blu-ray of Casino Jack is a sparsely appointed, handsome transfer of one of the better films of 2010, which received no Oscar nominations. Perhaps the problem was that the film was sold as a comedy; I've seen it labeled a failed comedy by at least one critic. What happens in Casino Jack is not funny, at least not to this reviewer. Michael Scanlon wailing like stuck pig doesn't feel like a comedy scene; it reminds me of Sean Penn's character blowing a fuse in The Falcon and the Snowman. Kelly Preston collapsing in grief because her husband has ruined her children's lives is not the stuff of comedy to me. Perhaps the film was sold as a yuk yuk product because it's too painful a picture of political reality. And who wants to go see a movie about that?
There is no commentary or documentary, but a slide show of stills from the set is accompanied by thoughtful and informative diary entries from director Hickenlooper. We learn that Casino Jack was filmed almost entirely in Canada with the Red One Camera, using blue-screen technology to tie characters in with backgrounds filmed in Washington and Miami. The effects to make this happen are undetectable; the only problem faced by the filmmakers was finding enough sunny days for the shoot. Note to actors: Canadian citizenship seems the best way to break into the pictures these days. A selection of deleted scenes adds some interest here and there, while a gag reel reveals more of the atmosphere on the set than it does deliberately funny moments. Actor-comic Jon Lovitz ironically found himself having to play straight man to other characters 'behaving' like comedians.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Casino Jack Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Gag reel, deleted scenes, Director's photo diary.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2011
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson
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