REVIEW: Jack Abramoff is More Folk Hero Than Scoundrel in Casino Jack
Until he was convicted in 2008, Jack Abramoff was a wearer of many hats: Washington lobbyist supreme, bedfellow of right-wing creeps like Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed, bilker of Indian nations, sometime film producer, restaurateur, observant Jew. Within the past year, he also became the star subject of two movies: First the sharp, complex Alex Gibney documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and now the more straightforwardly titled Casino Jack, directed by the late George Hickenlooper and starring Kevin Spacey in the title role. If Abramoff fancies himself a charming scamp, he'll be a lot happier with how he's portrayed in the latter movie -- and that's the problem with it.
Casino Jack (which was written by Norman Snider) hews pretty closely to the facts as we know them, outlining a Washington career so outlandish, it hardly seems to be for real. Scratch that -- maybe it's pretty much business as usual, but as Washington shenanigans go, Abramoff's story is perhaps more entertaining than most. The movie opens with Spacey's Abramoff delivering a soliloquy to his own image in a restroom mirror, just as he's preparing to brush his teeth. He takes time to admire himself, asserting (and not for the last time in the movie) that he works out every day. And he makes a sweeping if fairly apt observation about all the little people out there who fancy themselves stars: "Mediocrity is where most people live," he states, tacitly congratulating himself for not being a part of that crowd.
From there, Casino Jack outlines Abramoff's various misadventures: He and his superslick colleague Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) curry favor with powerful senators by taking them on expensive junkets, as a way of not-so-inadvertently leaving their own mark on the legislature. With their figurative magic wands, they make all sorts of illegal, or least unethical, activities seem strangely legit: Abramoff receives millions from the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands to lure U.S. clothing manufacturers to the islands' sweatshops -- that way, Spacey tells us in voiceover, Americans can continue to have their cheap jeans. Abramoff and Scanlon -- with a hand from a low-life associate, played here, wittily, by Jon Lovitz -- purchase a casino cruise line from a Greek mobster (Daniel Kash), with the help of a fraudulent wire transfer. And in the scheme that precipitates their downfall, Abramoff and Scanlon aggressively begin wooing casino-owning Indian tribes as clients, essentially extorting millions of dollars from them while calling them "monkeys" and "troglodytes" behind their backs.
Abramoff is a fascinating character, all right. You can't get away with those kinds of shenanigans unless you're extremely wily, and you have to have the ability to make people like you, too. But Hickenlooper appears to be a little too dazzled by Abramoff. On the one hand, it's a relief he doesn't take a scolding tone toward Abramoff's antics -- Casino Jack wouldn't be a better movie if it were a stop-the-presses screed about corruption in Washington. But Hickenlooper too often approaches his subject with the filmmaking equivalent of a wry chuckle. Jaunty music toodles in the background as Abramoff goes about his most dastardly business.
Spacey plays the character with an opaque veneer. Abramoff worked briefly in Hollywood (he produced two Dolph Lundgren movies in the '80s) and is fond of wearing gangster-rabbi fedoras and quoting famous movie lines, much to the delight of his adoring wife, Pam (a svelte Kelly Preston). Spacey relishes Abramoff's embarrassing hamminess, but beyond that, he hardly nicks the surface of the character. He never portrays Abramoff as much more than a lovable trickster; if Hickenlooper wanted more out of Spacey, he didn't manage to coax it out.
Casino Jack suggests that Hickenlooper thinks of Abramoff as a naughty folk hero, a rapscallion who's as deserving of our admiration as our derision. And to a degree, that view is defensible: It's better for us to grasp the reality that in Washington, plenty of questionable characters slide by on charm -- we shouldn't be naïve about it.
But the movie also hints that it's OK to be a hypocrite as long as you point out the hypocrisy of others. When Abramoff goes down, he tries to take DeLay (played here by a well-cast Spencer Garrett) and some of his other so-called friends with him. Spacey plays these moments with mischievous glee, as if we're somehow supposed to be on his side, at least a little bit. Personally, I wasn't won over. In the past Hickenlooper -- who died this past October, at age 47 -- made some marvelous movies about oddballs and misfits, among them the moving (and unjustly maligned) Edie Sedgewick biopic Factory Girl, as well as a documentary about weirdo '70s club impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Casino Jack is much slicker and more facile than either of those movies. It's an unfortunate capper to a freewheeling, free-spirited career that ended much too soon.