Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie Review: Casino Jack

Casino Jack *** ½
Directed by:
George Hickenlooper.
Written By: Norman Snider.
Starring: Kevin Spacey (Jack Abramoff), Barry Pepper (Michael Scanlon), Kelly Preston (Pam Abramoff), Rachelle Lefevre (Emily), Eric Schweig (Chief Poncho), Jon Lovitz (Adam Kidan), Maury Chaykin (Big Tony), Yannick Bisson (Oscar Carillo), Matt Gordon (Bill Jarrell), Christian Campbell (Ralph Reed), Spencer Garrett (Tom DeLay), Joe Pingue (Anthony Ferrari), Daniel Kash (Kontantinos 'Gus' Boulis), Ruth Marshall (Susan Schmidt), Graham Greene (Indian Chief).

Jack Abramoff was behind one of the biggest political scandals to hit Washington since Watergate. He has come to represent everything that is wrong with politics – the lobbyist who contributes tons of money to the campaigns of various politicians, and then uses that leverage to get them to do whatever the hell he wants them to do. He also took advantage of various Native groups across the USA, selling his services to them, because he said he could help them get their casinos off the ground and making millions of dollars. But in reality, everything Abrahmoff did, he did for purely selfish reasons. He wanted lots of money, he wanted power, he wanted influence – he wanted everything, and didn’t care what he had to do to get it.

George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack is a wonderfully entertaining film that tells Abramoff’s story. Its greatest asset is Kevin Spacey – who gives his best performance in years as Abramoff. He is a larger than life character – completely full of himself, always joking, doing his poor movie impressions – but most of all always talking, always spinning. It is a performance in which Spacey hardly ever slows down. Like a shark, it seems if Abramoff stops moving, he will die. Spacey commands the screen every moment he is on it – and in this movie that is pretty much every scene. It is a truly great performance.

The movie that surrounds that performance is itself quite good, although not quite great. One of the problems is that Abramoff is such an interesting character – and played with such zeal – that the people around him pale in comparison. Yes, I did love Jon Lovitz as a slimy business associate, and Maury Chaykin as an even slimier mobster – but aside from them, the rest of the cast never really gets a chance to develop their characters. They are going through the motions because the movie needs them there to provide foils from Abramoff – but is never really interested in them as characters.

Casino Jack is the type of movie that I would expect to find on HBO – who have excelled over the years in making political biopics like this one. That may sound like an insult, but I don’t mean it as one. Hickenlooper does a great job behind the camera – his best decision was to never slow down, never take his gaze off of Abramoff for too long, and play the entire movie as some sort of absurd comedy – even with the very serious ramifications on display. Hell, you may even start to like Abramoff a little bit – he certainly is a charming guy – but then you think about what he does done, how he has used the political system, and hurt so many people, and it just makes you sad. Abramoff is as bad as they get.

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