" For your information, my life is a living Hell "
— Elizabeth Hurley (as the devil), Bedazzled

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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The real Jack Abramoff was a lobbyist who made headlines in 2006 when it came to light that he had bribed members of congress and defrauded his own clients. The conspiracies and double dealings are too complicated to sum up in a sentence or two, which makes it all the more remarkable how tight Casino Jack is.

You’re a Naughty One, Saucy Jack

Spacey makes you root against your own interests
Spacey makes you root against your own interests

The character Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) is a natural lobbyist, thriving on conflict and driven by money. If he gets fired from one job, he’ll find another that pays even better, or outcompete his old employer as a freelancer.

Screenwriter Norman Snider opens on Jack’s arrest, then takes us back to a beginning, with Abramoff becoming interested in investing in a troubled casino cruise line. Through his dealings with American Indian tribes, he knows how much money there is in casinos.

During work hours he schmoozes big-name politicians, makes promises and threats over the phone, and high-fives his partners in Lobbying as they talk shop about their clients. With colleagues, his American Indian clients are “monkeys” and “troglodytes,” but to their faces, they are deeply aggrieved parties who deserve someone with power (like Jack) to fight for them in Washington.

If they are reluctant to pay him his huge retainer, he’s not above making a few calls to have the hierarchy within the tribe restructured in his favor. And if he fails to deliver on his promise of favorable legislation, then he’ll double down, demanding even more money because the fight just got harder.

A Mere Scoundrel

“Washington is Hollywood with ugly faces”
—Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff

Abramoff’s overeager protégé Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) makes a great dramatic foil. Scanlon has learned ruthlessness and greed from his master but hasn’t yet formed boundaries. Scanlon doesn’t blink when he learns a new partner has mafia ties, Abramoff says it’s a deal-breaker. Scanlon buys an expensive house that Abramoff says lacks taste. Scanlon spends on the here and now, while Abramoff saves to build a private school for his five children.

Jack’s home life, what little there is, is very domestic. His wife Pam (Kelly Preston) worries but stands by her man. Jack’s daughters are sweetly seen and never heard. A devout Jew, Jack prays every day. He also works out every day. He knows his way around a piano, playing Chopin to relax himself. It’s a stark contrast to the shark-infested waters of the lobbying game.

And, if that weren’t enough, Jack also founds the first (and best) kosher restaurant in D.C., and proudly displays his poster of Red Scorpion, a film he produced. Maybe Jack never sleeps.

Thus Spacey and the filmmakers transform a repugnant villain into a mere scoundrel. When his downfall comes, you’re almost sorry to see it — until you remember the real headlines.

I’ll Be Back...

Casino Jack is densely packed. Some scenes last only a minute or two, yet they all hold together in the big picture. In a worse movies, these episodes feel like jump cuts and serve only to confuse the audience. Here, they add texture, character, and a hustling pace that matches the lifestyles of its characters.

Spacey is excellent as Abramoff. That’s not to say he looks and walks and talks like Abramoff (I couldn’t say). Rather, he sells you his character as a protagonist. He’s something of a villain, yet he makes you root for him in that vein. You almost want him to discard his humanizing traits so that he’ll be a more pure and powerful anti-hero. Spacey taps into the same cold calculation that played for black comedy in last year’s In the Loop. In both movies, callous bastards gladly trade the well-being of us average citizens for their own oversized personal greed, yet we laugh at their evil and hope that they succeed.

Spacey’s Jack gets a nice warm coda at the end of the film, reminding us that in December of this year, Jack will again be a free man. And there’s no law that says a convicted felon can’t be a lobbyist.

Postscript

George Hickenlooper really made the leap to the A list with this film. He managed to control the chaos of Abramoff’s dealings without oversimplifying the scandal and without boring the audience with awkward exposition. Before Casino Jack, Hickenlooper was known mostly for his documentaries, with the occasional foray into B-list feature films. He was found dead on Saturday, October 30, just 5 days before he was to introduce the film at the Denver Film Festival.

Our festival advice: Buy a ticket!