Friday, January 14, 2011

Casino Jack

Jack Abramoff was a greedy prick. That's really the only message Casino Jack has. If you were expecting anything more from this political biopic by director George Hickenlooper and screenwriter Norman Snider you're bound to leave disappointed.

Kevin Spacey stars as the Washington D.C. super-lobbyist who became a household name working for Preston Gates & Ellis and Greenberg Traurig and a director of the National Center for Public Policy Research. The film gives us a look into Abramoff's rise to prominence and the personal flaws and series of events which led to his conviction on charges of embezzlement, fraud, and corruption.

The script is never quite sure what to do with this charismatic character who has dreams of helping the world while robbing his defrauding of Native American tribes and lining his own pockets with gold. It's certainly a meaty role for Spacey, but the film gives us no reason to root either for or against this deeply flawed individual addicted to both money and power.

Facing financial crisis and given the opportunity to make some real money, Abramoff and his protege (Barry Pepper) devise a plan to bilk their Native American clients and use the money to buy SunCruz Casinos from shady businessman Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis (Daniel Kash) with the help of a sleazy mattress salesman (Jon Lovitz).

When the film stays in the world of politics and the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing it works well enough. As it journeys into the realm of Abramoff's greed and ambition and the affairs of his partner that land them in hot water, it struggles. In the end what we're left with is a smart, sad man who never takes responsibility for his actions. You've seen this story before and Casino Jack doesn't bring anything new to the table.

The most troubling aspect about the film is also it's greatest strength - Kevin Spacey's performance. The entire movie is centered around a juicy role that Spacey greedily sinks his teeth into at the expense of other characters, plot, suspense, or good storytelling. From the opening monologue to the dream sequence as Abramoff testifies in Congress, every frame is centered around the idea of making a mediocre film surrounding a very strong performance. When people refer to "Oscar-bait" Casino Jack is the kind of movie they're talking about.

Those interested in Abramoff aren't going to learn anything new here. And those with little to no knowledge of the lobbyist may find the story a bit dull. For a movie about a guy who bilked his own clients out of millions, got into bed with gangsters, and went to jail, you would expect Casino Jack to be more compelling. Too bad it's not.

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