Have we had our fill of Jack Abramoff yet? First there was Alex Gibney’s anal probing of the dethroned super-lobbyist in the documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Now there’s the fictionalized “Casino Jack,” the last and certainly the most commercial film from the late George Hickenlooper. Should we expect the incarcerated and now recently released Beltway insider (having served 3 1/2 of his six-year sentence) to follow in the footsteps of his disgraced friend Tom DeLay and trip the light fantastic on “Dancing with the Stars”? Or maybe, he’ll do that million dollar money drop show.
The political poison that spread through Washington in one of our most recent national embarrassments is laid out with polished flair and gusto by Hickenlooper, who died on October 29 from an accidental painkiller overdose. In his most previous features he put his spin on socialite and Andy Warhol protégé Edie Segewick (2006’s “Factory Girl” with Sienna Miller), while “The Man From Elysian Fields,” was a cold, bliss-less 2001 entry with little to recommend it other than a scene-stealing Mick Jagger. Hickenlooper actually read my review on the latter and we corresponded briefly in 2002. He hoped I would like his next one and suggested I check out some of his earlier films ‘if you get a chance,’ including “The Low Life,” “Dogtown,” and “The Big Brass Ring.” I still think his best work is “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” a brilliant piece demystifying Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” It’s included on the ‘Three-Disc Full Disclosure Edition,’ of the Coppola work released two months ago, a Blu-ray version dripping with tons of extra material.
Kevin Spacey barrels full steam ahead as the titular character, profanely practicing before a bathroom mirror that he will never stoop so low that his precious, and exceedingly rich and upper-class, family would suffer in a plain vanilla world. ‘You say I’m selfish? F**k you! …You say I’ve got a big ego? F**k you twice!’ he exhorts as he parries a toothbrush as if a magical sword, daring his attackers into another of his cheeky dares that will be revealed later in the film. He’s a tragic figure (we know that, of course), oblivious to the slings and arrows of other people’s outrageous misfortune. Ah, but a big, teeming sea of trouble, two hours later, will overwhelm him.
Presented in a relatively linear manner, it starts with the worst (for Jack and friends) and then flashes back two years, as screenwriter Norman Snider (the 2004 TV movie “Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss” being his immediate previous credit) definitely captures the dark side of Jack and his cronies as they careen about D.C., like frantic metal orbs in a pinball machine, bouncing from one scheme or outlandish junket to the next, with congressmen and senators in tow. When appropriate, Spacey narrates in character, clarifying his agenda for the audience, providing ‘illuminating’ insights into how Washington works, on how he can so easily manipulate too many political lemmings into his den of impropriety. Yes, it’s a comedy. Jonathan Goldsmith’s whimsical doo-bee-doo score makes you think it might be a laugh-track game show.
And while Spacey puts a big Hollywood spin on his approach to the conservative Republican K Street mover/shaker, with hot air blowing in all directions, the supporting cast plays Costello to Abramoff’s straight-man Abbott. Slick-haired Barry Pepper portrays Michael Scanlon, a former aide for DeLay and then Abramoff operative, as a womanizer who has one affair too many for his fiancée (Rachel Lefevre) to stand. As the whole crooked cookie starts to crumble, Pepper’s mouth sports a frown that spirals southward, echoing his ever escalating franticness. Another goose that gets cooked is Adam Kidan, a Bush, Sr. Republican attorney and D.C. mattress tycoon involved in Abramoff’s Florida shenanigans involving SunCruz [SunSail in the movie] Casinos. As caricatured by comedian Jon Lovitz, you get a taste at how well he does sloven.
Hickenlooper and Snider approach the rise and fall of Jack and his entourage by hitting on the the major points and getting just enough of the supporting characters pissed off. They also stir in a little fantasy to provide a few “wait-a-minute” moments. Aside from being a terrific, but not great, vehicle for Spacey (receiving a Golden Globe nomination), “Casino Jack” is another in a parade of breezy cautionary tales, a flippant exposé of politics gone bad—which living just outside of DC, I see as an everyday occurrence. The film peels backs the Washington glitz to reveal a rotting core, and makes you squirm, grimace and laugh at political life as the norm.
Be it Jack or Bernie or some Ponzi scheme, here it’s time to put at least one nasty episode in comic perspective, to reflect on some of the ridiculous realities of American political life. No doubt many of elected officials and the influence peddling community will continue to perform shameless, brazen acts that will take America further down a dark rabbit hole. Unless we ban lobbying completely (yeah, right). So, world, have a good laugh on us.