Casino Jack's best scene is its first: A man at his bathroom mirror carries on an angry monologue about the threat to society posed by mediocre people and how cutting corners is a justification for unlimited personal success and for the good of the whole. The man is Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey): Washington lobbyist, Bush administration insider, and entrepreneur before political scandal and fraud took him down in the mid-2000s. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can't match the intensity of its opening.
Casino Jack chronicles Abramoff's fast times and hard fall but fails to capture what made its subject a success and what actually makes his existence so troubling. Top it off with overacting that is skin deep (Spacey), exuberant (Barry Pepper as Michael Scanlon, Abramoff's right hand), and typecast (Jon Lovitz as Adam Kidan, Abramoff's business front man), and Casino Jack fails to connect.
On his rise, Abramoff is a D.C. lobbyist representing Native American tribes with casino interests and the Northern Mariana Islands and its sweatshop-level textile industry. He treats politicians such as House majority leader Tom DeLay and Congressman Bob Ney to trips to the South Pacific and Scotland and fattens their campaign coffers with contributions from special-interest groups.
In a narration too reminiscent of the 2005 lobbyist film Thank You for Smoking (of which Casino Jack is a poor man's version), Abramoff says, "Next to God, faith, and country, nothing is more important than influence — political influence." He charges the Chippewa tribe exorbitant retainer fees but tells them it's worth it. He has direct access to congressional leadership and to the White House.
Abramoff is a capitalist's capitalist, at least on the surface. He has a bust of Reagan on his desk and tells others who share his mix of money, politics, and religion that "God wants people to be liquid" — prosperous.
One fundamental problem with Casino Jack is that its comedic touch makes the serious events it recreates seem implausible. The snappy tale of a fast-talking con man who has the ear of the government's elite isn't outrageous, as it should be, but merely unlikely. Spacey's Abramoff is too much of a putz to be so successful. Pepper's Scanlon is too much of an irredeemable a-hole. Lovitz' Kidan is too much of a dip. These aren't super lobbyists and business geniuses who almost pulled it all off. These are the dumbest guys in the room.
Opens Friday, February 18th
Studio on the Square