The sordid rise and eventual fall of Washington, D.C. “superlobbyist” Jack Abramoff is well-known to anyone who keeps up with the news. The Dubya-era money-handler got himself into trouble for supporting overseas sweatshops, swindling Native Americans and getting tied up in a casino cruise business partnership with some exceedingly shady characters. That’s the story presented in the late George Hickenlooper’s final film, Casino Jack, and it’s quite a tale.
It’s a fast-paced telling of the story, with Norman Snider’s script only rarely pausing to let it all sink in. We meet Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) and his cohort Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper) shortly before the chain of events kicks off that brings them monumental success… and ends with criminal charges and an ugly public shaming.
The arc of Jack’s rise and fall finds a companion in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Like the classic mob film’s anti-hero Henry Hill, Abramoff gets an early taste of life at the top and it sticks. Fueled by his massive ego, the lobbyist makes a series of increasingly risky decisions while leaving day-to-day business in the hands of unreliable underlings. Just when everything seems perfect, the world Jack has constructed crumbles. Spacey’s Abramoff, an overgrown child who throws out movie quotes like an Internet fanboy, would certainly appreciate the comparison to Hill.
Spacey is at his best. The movie opens with a pre-credits sequence in which Abramoff addresses himself in the bathroom mirror. Railing against the “disease of the dull,” he rants on about the abundance of mediocrity he sees all around. No world that Jack Abramoff touches is permitted to be “vanilla.” The monologue ends with a comment that is repeated several times throughout the film, “…and I work out every day.” Spacey’s Abramoff is clawing his way up toward the top of the world, and he knows that he’s going to get there.
Abramoff is presented in an almost sympathetic light here. Putting aside the man’s gargantuan ego and pitiless business maneuverings, he’s a fun-loving movies geek who clearly wishes that his younger endeavors in Hollywood – Jack Abramoff produced the Dolph Lundgren films Red Scorpion and Red Scorpion 2, and posters adorn the walls of his home and office in the film – had brought him to a different place. Money is his drug but a desire to live in the spotlight is very obviously a subconscious drive, evidenced in every decision he makes.
Clawing his way up alongside Abramoff is Mike Scanlon, played with just the right amount of sleazy charm by Pepper. He’s clearly a scumbag, but a thoroughly likeable one, like that guy in high school who you’d kick back beers with while he detailed his numerous (and likely fictitious) sexual conquests. There’s very little depth to the movie’s version of Scanlon, though not for Pepper’s lack of trying. He’s a talented actor, but Abramoff is the only character in Snider’s script whom we really get to see beneath the surface. This is, after all, his story.
The same goes for the always enjoyable Jon Lovitz, whose character acting ways are a perfect fit for the low-rent sleaze of Adam Kidan. He’s a one-note character as well, but it’s a note that the actor plays perfectly. An unreliable business partner brought in by Jack to run a risky casino cruise investment, Lovitz’s Adam is an unlikeable doppelganger to Pepper’s Scanlon. They’re both shaped from the same mold, full of fast talk and big ideas. Neither is above breaking the law, but Kidan exercises a total lack of grace in his business affairs and it has set him back in the world. You want to feel sorry for the character but you don’t. Credit to Lovitz for walking that fine line; he’s fun to watch, but your skin will crawl at the sight of him.
If there’s any single failing in Casino Jack that should be pinpointed, it’s that the movie doesn’t go far enough often enough. There’s a scene that occurs late in the story in which Abramoff is answering for his crimes in a Senate subcommittee hearing. He suddenly gets up and uses his knowledge of the men sitting in front of them, their shady dealings, to illustrate exactly how he is being made an example of by people who commit similar crimes every day. This of course never happened, it all occurs in Abramoff’s head. He’s got a rich imagination, and it’s a shame the film never leans more in the direction of exploring that.
Casino Jack is not for the faint of heart. The pace is relentless. There’s a smattering of violence, including one particularly brutal assault with a ball-point pen, but it’s the volume of information being laid out that will overwhelm the unsuspecting viewer. There’s an entertaining tale in here, an alternate perspective on one of the country’s biggest financial villains of recent years — you’ll just have to stay on your toes to really take it all in.