Kevin Spacey may be all the world to the English stage, but let’s face it, it’s a very long time since he had much of an impact on movie screens. Perhaps he thought that this wayward biopic of Jack Abramoff—despite its C-List cast and its D-List director—would change that. Considering the fact that it’s only now making its way to town after making no dent whatever with the Oscars—even with all those hopeful screeners the distributor sent out—should tell you that it did nothing to reverse Spacey’s movie fortunes. Sad thing is Spacey’s better here than he has been in years, but the movie’s not good—and it’s alarmingly out of whack in the bargain.
Casino Jack purports to be the story of Jack Abramoff, the notorious right-wing lobbyist whose no-holds-barred approach to making a huge profit out of any and everything resulted in so much corruption and arrogance that he managed to bring himself down, finding that not even those politicians who benefited the most from his schemes would stand by him when it came down to it. This story has already been told coherently and effectively in Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010), rendering this incoherent and ineffective fictionalized drama superfluous. But that’s not all. The whole approach to the film is odd to say the least, as witness the distributor’s description of Casino Jack as “riotous.” So is this a comedy? That appears to be the idea.
Setting aside the question of the wisdom of treating the material as comedy, the bigger problem is that Casino Jack simply isn’t very funny. It almost certainly would be possible to turn the story into black comedy, but the film’s sense of humor never gets past the level of people screaming obscenities at each other while their house of cards collapses or the image of Jon Lovitz passed out with his head resting on a semi-nude hooker. If the screenplay by Norman Snider (best known, I guess, for co-writing Dead Ringers with David Cronenberg 23 years ago) aimed for satire, it never got past the frat-boy level. After that, it gets worse when it tries to turn Abramoff into a more or less likable character—mostly on the basis that he’s no worse than Tom DeLay or George W. Bush. I wouldn’t personally argue that, but this neither makes him better than them, nor does it make him likable—nor does it offer anything surprising, since self-sacrificing politicians went out of style with Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington back in 1939.
Directed by the late George Hickenlooper in what must have been an attempt at style, the film is amateurish and clunky, while the HD video medium on which it was shot has the flat, harsh look of such technology from 10 years ago. The only thing that makes the film worth a look is Spacey—and that’s probably not enough. Rated R for pervasive language, some violence and brief nudity.