The Second-Best Jack Abramoff Movie of 2010

12/15/2010 4:00 AM |

Casino Jack

Directed by George Hickenlooper

Shamed superlobbyist Jack Abramoff was released on Friday, December 3, 2010 from the halfway house he entered after three and a half years in prison. The self-styled Orthodox Jew had been working there for a kosher pizza company for about $9 an hour. Released two weeks to the day after its subject, the sympathetic film version will make the unconscionable bilker’s reentry into society cushier, not hotter. Because as played by Kevin Spacey, Abramoff’s an adroit antihero, and every vile quality gets flipped into a merit. Unscrupulousness becomes audacity. A lack of ethics becomes a surfeit of crafty lobbying skill. Robbing American Indians is merely finding cash where lesser lobbyists don’t know to look. Casino Jack is bookended by a scene in a holding cell, with Spacey telling cellmate “Snake” that he doesn’t know why what he did was wrong—a simple rejection of the political “bad apples” idea that the film agrees with.

This is all despite the fact that cast and crew are probably all liberals disgusted by Jack’s actions. Even if they’re right that punishing the players ignores the fact of the whole corrupt pay-for-play system, their burlesque of Abramoff as a misunderstood go-getter, fond of breaking into impressions of Rocky Balboa and Reagan, oversoftens the criminal in the service of a light comedic vision that wants you to chuckle at the outrageousness. As Tom DeLay, who reaped political and financial riches from Abramoff’s fraudulence, an excrescent Spencer Garrett effectively reminds you that punishment was not properly shared. But Spacey, in smug, lecturing American Beauty mode (“I work out every day!” he repeats), is too high camp in his Abramoff apologia.

Alex Gibney’s recent documentary on the same subject added and the United States of Money to the same title because after a certain point it branched out into an exploration of larger systemic problems. Despite a few annoying cutesy flourishes, it’s a thorough and fact-heavy breakdown. It’s also funnier, ending as it does with footage of DeLay grotesquely dancing with the stars, rendering this go-through redundant. That’s a shame, as it’s the last film of director Hickenlooper, who died of an accidental painkiller overdose in October, aged 47. He let Spacey’s smarm devour the story, though he extracted funny performances from Jon Lovitz as a mobbed-up pawn in an Abramoff casino gambling boat venture, and Barry Pepper as the even more evil right-hand man Michael Scanlon, a mutant alpha-male who takes his merlot with three ice cubes. As usual in the celebrity biopic, there’s a fleeting thrill in seeing the fake versions of figures like Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist, but once you take in their accents and how their hair is parted, you’re left to wonder what’s the point.

Opens December 17