Review: Casino Jack

As far as I can remember, the word super never became a prefix for the benign designation of lobbyist until Jack Abramoff, a former B-movie producer, took over K street in the 1990s. A well-built, larger-than-life figure who famously donned Mafioso trench coats and black fedoras, Abramoff became one of the wealthiest businessmen on Capitol Hill while acting as a slick conduit between Congress and the special interest groups that paid him for access.

That is, until his elaborate house of cards came crashing down upon the lobbyist and his right-wing cronies for corrupting public officials and defrauding Indian tribes of millions of dollars. Abramoff pled guilty to three criminal felony charges, for which he served 3 1/2 years. He was released this past May and now flips pizzas for a living.

That’s only part of Abramoff’s fascinating story, which has, this past year alone, inspired two similarly titled movies. Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which hit theaters last spring, is a journalistic tour de force, a veritable day-by-day account of Abramoff’s quick ascension and just-as-rapid public plummet, loaded with head-shaking data that prove just how unconscionable Abramoff’s actions were.

By all means, see the documentary before subjecting yourself to George Hickenlooper’s new biopic Casino Jack, which opens Friday, Jan. 7. Hickenlooper’s deeply unserious take on Abramoff and his many scandals is like watching Washington’s recent “Culture of Corruption” saga play out like a middling TV drama — more cliché than insight, more conjecture than truth, more Burn Notice than The West Wing. Or, in its silly embrace of over-the-top histrionics, perhaps an episode of Looney Tunes is more appropriate. Everyone is such an exaggerated caricature of himself that you forget you’re watching real people.

Kevin Spacey, to his credit, is in vintage form as Abramoff, another variation on the short-circuited, acid-tongued stuffed shirts on which he forged his career in the ’90s. Spacey plays Abramoff as a delusional, avaricious buffoon prone to petulant tantrums and imbecilic movie-star impressions. Yet beneath the bluster there’s an inherent likability to his persona, calling to mind that backhanded compliment about George W. Bush that he’s a guy “you want to have a beer with.” We entirely have Spacey to thank for this: The film only finds its pulse through his energetic presence; he charms the pants off the very snake he’s portraying. Subplots involving supporting cast members — including Barry Pepper as Abramoff’s partner-in-crime Michael Scanlon and Jon Lovitz as the bankrupt, mob-tied mattress maven Adam Kidan — crush whatever minimal momentum the film gains in its exploration of the title character.

Unlike Gibney, Hickenlooper and screenwriter Norman Snider spend a considerable amount of time on Abramoff’s personal life, especially his Orthodox Judaism. Watching the crooked lobbyist tinkle Chopin on the piano while donning a yarmulke and davening offers a different side to Abramoff than the one-dimensional bully presented by the mainstream media.

The movie falters when it strays from the script of reality and is forced to simply make up shit to justify its crime-drama leanings. We know something fishy happened when Gus Boulis, owner of the SunCruz Casino empire (here lamely rebranded “SunSail” for legal purposes), was killed in a mob hit, but even Gibney, in his exhaustive research for his documentary, couldn’t find evidence tying Abramoff or any of his companions to the murder. In his screenplay, Snider flippantly makes that connection, relying on gossip to condemn Kidan for unknowingly suggesting the “whacking” to Maury Chakin’s porcine don.

Hickenlooper may have been better off modeling a new story on the Abramoff scandal and passing the result off as satire. As it stands, the Screenwriting 101 interactions depicted in Casino Jack make the juvenile re-creations in Oliver Stone’s W. feel ripped from White House audio recordings. But even if this screechy melodrama were presented as a pure fiction, it wouldn’t pass many smell tests: It’s ridiculously staged and flat-out stupid, culminating in a limp, unwarranted apology for its titular cretin.

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