“Mediocrity is the elephant in the room” and “you’re either a big-leaguer or a slave” are just a couple of the quotable one-liners that George Hickenlooper’s new political flick, Casino Jack, puts in the mouth of notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, played by actor Kevin Spacey, who interprets the titular character with such charming, eloquent self-righteousness that you almost find yourself wishing he had come out on top, as he'd always intended to do.
Spacey is really just the cherry on top of this dynamic cinematic masterpiece, which is so wittily handled that it could practically be satire instead of interpreted fact. The plot manages to unravel Abramoff’s Gordian knot of bribery and deceit by chopping right into the thickest part of it. To be sure, Abramoff’s tale is not an easy one to tell, as it deals with so many layers of mass manipulation and sabotage it could make your head spin. But Hickenlooper gives it to us straight, laying out the details of “Casino Jack’s” convoluted master plan like a deck of playing cards, showing how he dug each and every shovelful of dirt to hollow out his own grave.
Anyone who picked up a newspaper in the early 2000s, which marked Abramoff’s short reign as king of the lobbyists, knows the bare bones of his story – he wrote the book on representing special interest groups in Washington, dressing up a job that others tried to keep quiet in sequins and red lipstick like a cheap … well, you know. Those who hated him for his arrogance and flashiness were only outweighed by those who loved him for exactly the same qualities, plus a healthy dose of business acumen and moneymaking savvy. Special interest groups everywhere sought him, and Republican congressmen he considered “friends” jumped neatly into his pocket, one by one – some, like Tom DeLay and Robert Ney, more eagerly than others.
Of course none of Abramoff’s services came cheap, and he was known not only for taking exorbitant fees from the groups he represented, but using special interest money to fund personal enterprises, including the opening of an offshore casino that was feeling heat from Washington, fronted by an alcoholic hothead with mob ties, Adam Kidan, played with exquisite, nasally nonchalance by Jon Lovitz, for whom this might just be the performance of a lifetime.
Also at the heart of the tale is Abramoff’s loud, boisterous partner, Michael Scanlan (Barry Pepper), who is portrayed as having all of Abramoff’s ambition with only half his intelligence, and eventually brings the duo crashing – and hard – down to earth before striking a plea bargain and sailing his “friend” and mentor Abramoff up the river, as friends in Washington are wont to do when they start to see smoke. Abramoff’s wife, Pam (Kelly Preston) points this out to her husband when she reads about the grand larceny charges against him in the newspaper and tearfully realizes that their reign supreme has come to a jarring halt.
Not knowing any Washington insiders, I can’t tell you how much of Casino Jack is actually true and how much of it just sensationalizes a scapegoat case of lobbying gone too far. All I can do is tell you that Casino Jack is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen this year, not only because it provides real insight into a scandal that’s relatively complex, but because it’s filled with solid performances that coalesce into a darkly humorous tale of scheming, deceit, intrigue and even murder that looks, on the surface, like it’s all on the up-and-up.
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz
Director: George Hickenlooper
Distributor: ATO Pictures
Runtime: 108 minutes