2010, R, 108 min. Directed by George Hickenlooper. Starring Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Rachelle Lefevre, Spencer Garrett, Maury Chaykin.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 7, 2011
Musically scored like a Sixties sex comedy and edited, seemingly, with the aid of an egg timer, Casino Jack moves with such manic determination it all but reaches out from the screen and shakes you by the collar: "See, movies about lobbyists can be fun!" It's all so I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can that eventually I just gave in – from sheer exhaustion, really – and mostly enjoyed the late George Hickenlooper's dramatization of the sensational rise and then super-splat of K-Street con man Jack Abramoff. (Hickenlooper died suddenly just two days after screening Casino Jack at the 2010 Austin Film Festival.) Curiously, Alex Gibney's superior documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money has a similarly wearying effect; perhaps both filmmakers felt so much razzmatazz was required to keep viewers hooked into a members-only Washington scandal. They needn't have worried, not with "you can't make this up, folks!" plot points like Mafia whackings, offshore sweatshops, and a spurned Native American community leader who goes off the reservation and right into a Senate hearing as a material witness and chief instigator in the case against Abramoff. While the film doesn't absolve the disgraced (then incarcerated) lobbyist, it does go to great pains to paint him as a family man and man of faith, despite the curious and rather sordid company he keeps (the film is filled out with terrific character actors, including Pepper as Abramoff's spittling protégé Michael Scanlon, Lovitz as a disbarred lawyer and drunk business partner, and the marvelously fat and craggy Chaykin, who died last July, as a mafioso). Spacey, as Abramoff, has some springy moments as a goof quoting movies at inopportune times and as a shark prowling the waters for his next money-making venture. Despite his character's fondness for mugging and mouthing like Michael Corleone, Spacey (and by extension, his director and writer Norman Snider) can't quite catch the operatic wallop of Corleone's arc, possibly because the film is played top-to-bottom like a caprice. (See the Picture in Picture blog for an interview with Hickenlooper.)