Originally posted on Mapcidy:
“I’m Jack Abramoff, and oh yeah – I work out every day.” That’s a line that opens and closes Casino Jack, and it sets the right tone fairly handily. The movie was written by Norman Snider and directed by George Hickenlooper, a documentarian and filmmaker (his Mayor Of The Sunset Strip is highly recommended) who unfortunately passed away about a month before Casino Jack was released. Tone is extremely important in a movie like this one, and the brisk, sardonic tone that carries Casino Jack turns out to be a good fit.
It seems hard to believe, but so much of what happens in this movie is drawn from real life. Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist and favor trader who was convicted of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in 2006 (and is now out of prison as of this month) is very real, and even the most stubborn Fox News correspondent couldn’t argue that his deeds weren’t criminal. So there isn’t much that needs to be invented for an astounding, infuriating story to unfold here, but the tone needs to be framed properly.
Before I saw Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack, I saw Alex Gibney’s documentary on the same subject, Casino Jack & The United States Of Money. That one was informative and thorough, but dry. A feature film has an obligation to be just a little more fun. Hickenlooper relies on his experience in documentaries to keep the facts straight, but also has some fun with the tongue-in-cheek, Goodfellas-esque unreliable narration from its title character, and the often-moronic misdeeds of his business partners and cohorts. Even fictionalized, this story is no less damning to its participants.
You never want to judge other human beings too harshly, but by any moral and legal standard, these people are despicable: hypocrites, liars, and disenfranchisers. Casino Jack never loses sight of that fact, even as it allows its cast all the best chances to be entertaining, even charming. Kevin Spacey, as Jack Abramoff, the charismatic political mover and defrauder, hasn’t been this fun to watch in quite some time. As his sidekick and protégée, Mike Scanlon, the perennially underrated Barry Pepper is oily and gross and even more off-putting than he is as Lucky Ned in this month’s True Grit, but he’s also terrific as always. In an inspired bit of stunt-casting, SNL comedian Jon Lovitz shows up as Abramoff’s East Coast associate, the mob-connected mattress salesman, Adam Kidan, and he’s a total joy. Having Lovitz play a key role in a biopic pushes the boundaries of reality almost into farce, but it’s fun to see him again and after all, this story is almost too crazy to be true in reality, so the movie has some leeway to follow suit.
It helps that Kelly Preston works hard to make her role as Abramoff’s wife Pam function as the human heart of the movie. It’s hard to find much sympathy for the marauders that the movie centers around, so it’s important to have the nearly-forgotten people (and victims) on the periphery register as real, relatable, and genuinely wounded. Kelly Preston’s role is to remind the audience of the emotional and financial havoc that these men wreaked, both out on the streets and at home. The fact is, for what these guys did on a daily basis, for the harm they caused, they got off easy. It’s not too late for the rest of us to remember to not let them forget it.
If you’re interested, Alex Gibney’s documentary of the same name is also very worth watching: