Reviewed by Marc Glassman
George Hickenlooper, director
Norman Snider, script
Starring: Kevin Spacey (Jack Abramoff), Kelly Preston (Pam Abramoff), Barry Pepper (Michael Scanlon), Rachelle Lefevre (Emily Miller), Jon Lovitz (Adam Kidan), John David Whalen (Kevin A. Ring),
Yannick Bisson (Oscar Carillo), Graham Greene (Bernie Sprague), Eric Schweig (Chief Poncho), Maury Chaykin (Big Tony)
Jack Abramoff was one of the most successful lobbyists in Washington D.C. during the George W. Bush administration. The glad-handing, fast-talking ultra-fit conservative Jew was a favourite of the President and key members of Congress during that time. He was also utterly corrupt and curried favours for his wealthy corporate clients from White House staffers, other lobbyists and members of the House of Representatives.
When Abramoff went down in 2006, he was convicted of a potpourri of crimes ranging from fraud to tax evasion. He wasn’t the only one to serve jail time. Congressman Bob Ney, nine lobbyists, two of Bush’s officials and other congressional staffers ended up in prison, too.
The Abramoff story was ripe for a dramatic treatment. It’s the tale of the big man brought down by his own hubris–Abramoff was filled with overweening pride and simply didn’t think that anyone could resist his manipulations. He represented many Native American groups and used that, as well as his Judaism, to present himself as a figure of moral rectitude, a prince among the charlatans who buy and sell deals in Washington. Nothing, of course, was further from the truth as the late George Hickenlooper’s last film amply demonstrates.
Abramoff’s tale has been made into a dramatic feature, appropriately entitled Casino Jack, co-produced by Canadians and shot mainly in Hamilton. Kevin Spacey stars as the corrupt lobbyist and he’s in good form, playing a cool, smart schemer. It’s the kind of character that made Spacey’s reputation nearly 20 years ago in films like L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects and Seven; he’s fun to watch as he trots out his old stuff again in this film. Also compelling is Canadian Barry Pepper who offers a full-bodied portrayal of lobbyist Michael Scanlon, another corrupt figure and an Abramoff acolyte.
It’s Scanlon’s philandering that brings down Abramoff’s elaborate house of cards, which involved mobsters, gambling, Native land claims and vast corporate malfeasance. When Emily, Scanlon’s main squeeze, discovers that he’s spending time with other women, she blows the whistle on her boyfriend and his boss, Abramoff.
Casino Jack is immersed in dark waters: scandalous conniving behaviour is linked to the Bush administration and a purportedly conservative political agenda. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to its ambitions. Torontonian scriptwriter Norman Snider has gone for big scenes, leaving solid plot structure and careful character development behind.
Too much of Casino Jack feels incoherent. It’s hard to tell what’s happening in a series of elaborate situations involving Native tribes, who are being sold a bill of goods by Abramoff. The odd and very dark friendship between Abramoff and Adam Kidan (another convicted conspirator performed by comedian Jon Lovitz) is played for laughs and feels out of synch with most of the rest of the film.
The whole story of Abramoff is better depicted in the feature doc released last year, Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Check out the doc on DVD and pass on this drama unless you’re a big Kevin Spacey fan.