You’re nobody in this town until you haven’t met us.
—Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey)
For his first feature film in 1991, George Hickenlooper studied the madness of artistic overreach with his documentary Hearts of Darkness. In it, Hickenlooper used footage taken by Eleanor Coppola’s on the set of her husband’s Apocalypse Now and well as some I-can’t-believe-we-did-that interviews with the participants, to tell the story of how one filmmaker trucked into the jungle with an army’s worth of money and material and went mad trying to bring his vision to reality.
For his last film—the 47-year-old director died less than two months before it was released—Hickenlooper takes on a different kind of overreach. In Casino Jack, a man flies closer and closer to a corrupting sun because he can’t see how anything he plans is not going to work out, until the glue holding his wings together starts to melt and the ground comes rushing at him faster than he thought possible.
The story of Jack Abramoff is also recounted by Alex Gibney’s excellent Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which flickered through theaters earlier this year. But while Gibney’s film about Abramoff’s rise to Republican ultra-lobbyist riches and infamy includes plenty of fun things normally missing from documentaries (including a tongue-in-cheek reenactment of a gangland slaying), it didn’t have a couple of things that Hickenlooper’s film does, namely a long-overdue return by Kevin Spacey (as Abramoff) to some form of recognizable acting, and Jon Lovitz playing a character as stupid as he is sleazy.
Norman Snider’s script doesn’t waste much time with Abramoff’s backstory, putting him at the nexus of Washington lobbyist influence-peddling right at the start. This creates some difficulties for the film later on, but at first this no-nonsense approach, paired with Hickenlooper’s comically askew viewpoint, makes for smart political satire. Spacey’s unctuous grin and master-of-the-universe swagger fit his Abramoff in perfectly with the ascendant Republicans of the post-Gingrich era, like Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, and Karl Rove (all of whom flutter in and out of Abramoff’s orbit like flies).
As a “licensed lobbyist” (whatever that means), Abramoff sells his wares (in essence, access to powerful politicians like DeLay) to anybody looking for a listening ear in Washington. Sometimes that means taking junkets to the Mariana Islands to ensure that a legal loophole will stay open and so, the continuing operation of some extremely profitable sweatshops. Other times, it means flying out to Native American reservations and suckering them out of millions of dollars in fees for services that are never quite delivered.
Abramoff pulls most of this off with a straight face. While there’s an animalistic salesman’s venality to Spacey’s performance that could come straight from a Mamet play, there are numerous hints that, in some way, Abramoff thinks that he’s not just making buckets of money, he’s also doing the right thing. At the same time that he is bilking clients and investing in a scummy, mobbed-up floating casino operation in Florida, the surprisingly devout Abramoff is also pushing hard to build a religious school his own children can attend, and delivering speeches to conservative audiences in which he rhetorically asks, “Does God want people to be liquid?”
The complexity of Abramoff’s character is initially admirable, when the film hints that his emotional outbursts are little more than crocodile tears from a onetime Hollywood producer. The script barely refers to Abramoff’s infamous past as the virulently anti-Communist, Young Republican action-flick peddler who delivered unto the world the brawny glory that was Dolph Lundgren’s Red Scorpion. Still, Casino Jack does hint at that background in one of Abramoff’s most cynically astute lines: “Washington is Hollywood with ugly faces.”
Abramoff’s associates are less inclined to see the good in their scams or the comparisons to other businesses. His sidekick Mike Scanlon (a goony Barry Pepper) is a relentlessly immature frat-boy striver with no moral shadings and Adam Kidan (Lovitz), a beneath-disreputable acquaintance of Abramoff’s who becomes his front in the casino boat venture. Both Scanlon and Kidan are utter buffoons with more moxie than brains, and they help Hickenlooper’s frequently conflicted film get closer to that note of freewheeling comedy it so often seems to be seeking.
But the mix of tones makes the film unwieldy by its third act. Here the slow-motion collapse of Abramoff’s overextended empire of restaurants, gambling joints, and shady associates looks almost tragic. It’s clear that he’s swallowed his own line of patter and somehow believed that when he and his associates are selling access to Congressional Republicans and conning tribes out of millions of dollars, they were just living the capitalist dream. But when the Ponzi scheme of Abramoff’s life unravels, Casino Jack ends up suspended uneasily somewhere between comedy and drama. This is curious, because the film inserts a well-known real-life scene here, as Abramoff, wearing a ridiculously large black hat, is mobbed by reporters who’ve caught the whiff of scandal. With this performance, he makes his own legacy clear: he’s the villain.