Amidst the rising suburbification of the mid-‘50s, Dwight MacDonald lamented: “A whole middle culture has come into existence… let us call it Midcult. [It possesses] the formula, the built in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf” (Against the American Grain, 37). Cultural pretentions aside, the description seems particularly apt regarding the “politicized” cinema emerging from 21st century Hollywood. Gauzed in the aura of topicality and relevance, films such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), The Hurt Locker (2008), and In the Valley of Elah (2007) backslide into hackneyed plots and bloated clichés. Casino Jack is no different.
The plot supposedly chronicles the rise and fall of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), but ultimately, it could equally be about Gordon Gekko or Charles Foster Kane. Undergirding the tycoon/venture capitalist genre lurks the same mixed morality tale that the gangster film hinges upon. As Robert Warshow identified over 60 years ago, the gangster film’s appeal to a schizophrenic modern consciousness: “all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless against enemies: one is punished for success. This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is—ultimately—impossible. The effect of the gangster film is to embody this dilemma in the person of the gangster and resolve it by his death. The dilemma is resolved because it is his death, not ours” (The Immediate Experience 133).
The death in the venture capitalist genre is often less literal than metaphysical—prison and/or poverty—but more painful than dying since at least death serves as an escape from rather than perpetual immersion in the purgatory of status quo existence. (This breach of contract led to the outpouring of viewer anger regarding the final episode of The Sopranos where creator David Chase refused to end in a bloody denouement of Tony’s misguided ways by instead leaving him and his family sitting in a faux-‘50s restaurant as a mere shell of normalcy.)
Casino Jack, however, starts off promising. We find ourselves within a blindingly spotlessly white bathroom. The chrome faucet sparkles in close-up as a toothbrush washes underneath it. Jack Abramoff stares at himself in the mirror beneath the bathroom’s harsh artificial lighting, aggressively brushing his teeth. He then launches into the following tirade:
“In reality mediocrity is where most people live. It’s ubiquitous. Mediocrity in your schools. It’s in your dreams. It’s in your family. And those of us who know this, those of us who understand the disease of the dull, we do something about it. We do more because we have to. The deck was always stacked against us. You’re either a big leaguer or a slave clawing your way onto the C train. Some people say that Jack Abramoff moves to quickly, that Jack Abramoff cuts corners. Well, I say to them: if that’s the difference between me and my family having a good life and walking and using the subway everyday then so be it. I will not allow my family to be slaves. You say I’m selfish. Fuck you! I give back plenty. You say I’ve got a big ego. Fuck you twice! I’m humbly grateful for the wonderful gifts I received here in America, the greatest country on this planet. I’m Jack Abramoff. And, oh yeah, I work out every day.”
This monologue suggestively implies the complex psyche that we are about to enter: one that teeters constantly along the precipice of absolute success or absolute failure; one that rationalizes voracious accumulation and self-interest as that of protecting his family; one that cloaks egotism with the empty clichés of charity and patriotism; one that couples moral superiority with a well-defined physique; one that, in general, holds most of humanity in contempt for its very lack of privilege. It’s both deeply insecure and megalomaniacal. In other words, it’s the psyche of the gangster and the venture capitalist.
But instead of delving into the specificities that constitute this psyche—how they develop, grow, and ultimately poison its holder and those nearby, how capitalism inhabits the body and mind like a virus latched upon a host draining it of its life-force, the film descends into an orgy of empty signifiers of wealth: the boats, mansions, women, drinking, and hedonism. It could be New Jack City (1991) without the interesting soundtrack or DePalma’s remake of Scarface (1983) without the grotesque acting. Ultimately, the film stays on the surface of things—exactly where Abramoff wants us.
The film takes pains at exposing how Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), conceive of their lives as central roles in a constantly running blockbuster film. They quote lines from Rocky, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now. Abramoff actually produced two Dolph Lundgren films. Wealth has insulated these two men from reality to such an extent that they have mistaken the B-film that they have constructed for one of the classics that they are constantly quoting. The problem is that this B-film actually comprises the film we are forced to watch for over an hour-and-a-half.
The characters remain one dimensional since they can no longer locate where their personalities any longer reside underneath the refuse of artifice. Unlike the best of the gangster films that navigate through the psychic compromises one must always make when business infects every aspect of one’s daily life, Casino Jack suggests that Abramoff and company have long since been assimilated. There is no drama since there is no longer anything human remaining. Unlike The Sopranos that emotionally invests us with its main characters for many seasons only to slowly peel off the veneer and reveal the utter toxicity that circulates within the few “surviving” characters of its final season— the inhumanity reinforced by the cold blue and black pallet that pervades most of its scenes—, Casino Jack’s antiseptic world deflects our attention from the psychic costs to the more superficial details of deals gone wrong.
Similar to the film’s shabby plot, the DVD’s extras leave much to be desired. Ten minutes of throw-away extra scenes and a completely unfunny gag real constitute the bulk of them. But this is probably for the best since after watching the film one doesn’t feel like indulging in anything more regarding this hollow world. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film might be Abramoff’s final joke upon us, ripping us off one last time by promising to tell us the “true” story only to have our hopes dashed by the opening title of “inspired by true events.” Perhaps it serves us right.
By remaining true to the spirit of Abramoff, Casino Jack embodies the B-movie failure that takes itself too seriously. In other words, it’s Midcult, and its success is bankrolled upon us never learning this basic lesson.