Last year saw the release of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Alex Gibney’s terrific documentary about crooked Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Now, oddly, in a dramatized version of the same story, we’ve got a film that’s flatter and less interesting.
Gibney’s film used facts and actual footage to tell the story of Abramoff’s incredible rise and abrupt fall. The late George Hickenlooper’s movie makes the mistake of letting Kevin Spacey, in the title role, get away with being too earnest, too glib, too charming — in short, too ... Spacey. His Abramoff is a greedy, unrepentant capitalist who will lie as much as he has to in order to get a combination of money and power.
But what could have been a fascinating character study turns out to be time spent with a wholly unlikable person, played by Spacey without looking for a shred of audience sympathy. You only want the worst for him — and while that might make for fun viewing, there’s no mirth in Norman Snider’s straightforward script.
From the get-go, Abramoff is full of himself — alone in a room, staring into a mirror, pontificating about how great he is. Then he’s photographed at a federal holding facility, after two worlds have collapsed — his own and that of his business partner, Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper).
Casino Jack gets its name from Abramoff’s involvement with different Indian tribes. He helped open gambling destinations, then pitted some of the tribes against others, all the while taking large checks from them for his “consulting expertise.”
There’s also some shady stuff about Abramoff and Scanlon making big bucks in a Florida-based offshore gambling outfit. But their scheme will only work if even sleazier people are brought in to oversee things. The film works fine in that area, with Jon Lovitz pulling off a wonderfully wormy performance as Adam Kidan, who proceeds to become even more hated by certain people than Abramoff.
Unfortunately, nothing between Spacey and Pepper seems spontaneous. Every scene they’re in together feels planned out and self-conscious. Even though this is a story of two guys thinking fast on their feet, nothing feels “in the moment.” Most of Hickenlooper’s direction seems mannered and unsubtle.
But Casino Jack does offer three great sequences: a nicely-done recreation of Senate hearings headed by John McCain, a well-placed Imelda Marcos gag (you can never have too many of those), and a magic moment when one character refers to George W. Bush as an idiot.