Infoglut and movies make poor bedfellows, only one of the reasons why “Casino Jack,” the dramatization of the epic Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, fares no better than Alex Gibney’s Abramoff doc, “Casino Jack: The United State of Money,” which preemed at Sundance. Compounding matters is an ungainly lead perf by Kevin Spacey, emphasizing superficial cynicism, and George Hickenlooper’s direction, which lacks the bravura necessary to bring the most emblematic episode of recent Washington corruption fully to life. Fledgling distrib ATO Pictures faces an uphill campaign to lure decent critical reception and aud interest.
Abramoff, a veteran GOP lobbyist who parlayed his twin passions for God and mammon into a meteoric rise and crash during the George W. Bush years, is theoretically a natural movie subject — a creature who might easily have been hatched by Preston Sturges in an earlier era. But it’s the politico’s labyrinthine web of clients, connections and multilayered interests — by design a means for covering illegal schemes involving bribery — that turns Hickenlooper’s entertainment into a leaden, expository affair.
Movies are certainly an apt connection with Abramoff, a Beverly Hills kid who once dabbled in producing and is fond of quoting movie dialogue. (“Washington is Hollywood with ugly faces,” Spacey’s Jack observes.) Perhaps such amateur cinephilia is a lovable quality in real life, but it’s overdone here, leaving the misguided impression that Jack has a hard time taking anything seriously and defusing any political potency from the film.
In an effective opening that channels “Raging Bull,” Jack stares in the mirror and emotionally expounds on his hatred of mediocrity. But Norman Snider’s script makes the mistake of setting up Jack’s arrest early in the first act, establishing a wind-back narrative structure that has become all too familiar in contempo biopics.
With the help of his even more cynical right-hand man, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), Jack has lined up a bizarre but lucrative set of clients as a lobbyist-for-hire, including garment owners in the Marianas Islands and tribal casinos, which benefit from permissive deregulatory legislation as Jack spreads the cash around Capitol Hill. But as much money flows into Jack’s office and the Republican-leaning firm employing him, even more moolah is hemorrhaging in the form of Jack and Michael’s ridiculous business schemes.
Jack’s wife, Pam (Kelly Preston), and Michael’s g.f., Emily (Rachelle Lefevre), independently sense something’s rotten, but the two men keep rolling along, setting up an especially shady deal with sleazy Gus Boulis (Daniel Kash), Greek-born owner of Florida floating casinos. This Elmore Leonard-ish plot turn is weighed down by excessive exposition and on-the-nose dialogue, despite Jon Lovitz’s performance as Jack’s greasy middleman, Adam Kidan, which injects a welcome note of nervous comedy into the complex proceedings.
That Jack is so naive as to be surprised over Adam’s mob connections (which emerge with bloody results care of the late Maury Chaykin’s corpulent, aging hitman, Big Tony) is no more credible onscreen than in the actual Abramoff case. Jack’s ultimate demise is thus such a foregone conclusion, completing a picture stuffed with so many connections and half-truths, that the entire saga feels like a chimera, rather than a true story whose impact should have but hasn’t compelled genuine reform of D.C. lobbying practices.
A similar sense of pointlessness also undid Hickenlooper’s “Factory Girl,” about Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol, but the effect here is more sour, since “Casino Jack” could have been a crackerjack comedy-thriller with the right handling. Spacey’s performance is misconceived in both detail and tone, resulting in a character few will care about, and yet is also not delicious in his amorality. Preston’s big emotional scene is a misstep in an otherwise good but reactive role, while Pepper projects pure male id.
With Matthew Davies’ diverse and detailed production design as a highlight, tech package is generally strong for a midlevel production, marred by a few weirdly artificial “location” shots.