'Casino Jack': An American Dream on Meth
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Onetime super lobbyist Jack Abramoff famously warned director Alex Gibney ("Casino Jack and the United States of Money") that no one bought tickets to documentaries; he advised him instead to "make an action movie." (Trust the guy who once produced Dolph Lundgren's "Red Scorpion" to sniff out where his own lifestory might breed the biggest bucks!) Clearly, George Hickenlooper took that advice to heart. In "Casino Jack," trying to gin up adrenalized action in what's fundamentally a movie about political palm-greasing, he throws in Greek mafiosi, New Jersey hitmen and, scariest of all, vengeful bimbos. The movie conjures a darkside American Dream, crassified to the max and running on a meth high.
Turbo-charging the narrative -- aping the style but not the art of "Goodfellas" -- Hickenlooper gleefully exposes the comic/lethal symbiosis between venal lobbyists and legislators in our nation's capital. But genuine funny isn't often forthcoming in this socio-political immorality play, mostly because the political caricature doesn't come near the bite and snap of a top-notch "Doonesbury" strip.
Let's recap for a moment, since amnesia doesn't just afflict Congress and the media these days. As a K Street wheeler-dealer a decade or so ago, Jack Abramoff traded favors, influence, anything that facilitated hookups between whorish legislators and folks who buy their services, like sweatshop operators in the Mariana Islands or Native American casino owners hot to tomahawk the competition. Able to work the system like nobody's business -- "he could charm a dog off a meat wagon"--Abramoff owned legislators, hung out with Tom DeLay ("the guy we all want to be when we grow up"), dropped into the Oval Office, wined and dined prospective million-dollar clients, and lived very, very large. Still, when his house of cards collapsed, it seemed no one knew or had ever met Jack Abramoff.
In their prime, Abramoff (played here by Kevin Spacey) and sleazeball sidekick Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper in full crazed-weasel mode) scam and spend in fast-action, slowing down just long enough to gloat like kids who've buried their hot little hands in the candy jar. (Improbably toe-to-toe on a deserted airport tarmac, the two literally go gaga over a lucrative coup, high-fiving and shrieking "Show me the money!") If being trapped in the dark with a pair of hopped-up con-artists -- used car salesmen, say, or televangelists -- for an hour or so is your idea of fun times, then "Casino Jack" might be the perfect unreality show for you.
Hickenlooper thought D.C.'s high-rolling bottom-feeder was "hilarious," a perfect anti-hero ripe for sharp-toothed satire -- the kind that Moliere or Altman (see "Tanner '88") would have aced. Abramoff's life is so over the top, it reads like a bad screenplay. Watching "Fiddler on the Roof" inspired him to become an Orthodox Jew -- "If I were a rich man..." probably clinched the deal. Charmed by his own image in a bathroom mirror, Spacey's spieler extraordinaire rants about escaping from the mediocrity where most everybody lives, climaxing with the loony mantra, "I'm Jack Abramoff, and I work out!" It's nutjob narcissism, a persona reminiscent of Tom Cruise's macho self-help guru in "Magnolia."
Deploying an arsenal of mannerisms drawn from showy roles in "The Usual Suspects," "Glengarry Glen Ross," and "Swimming with Sharks," Spacey projects an ebullient, snake-eyed sociopath, who sermonizes -- in a synagogue, yet -- on God's desire that we all be liquid, financially speaking. Michael Douglas inhabited Gordon "greed is good" Gekko so wholeheartedly, he turned his Wall Street wheeler-dealer into a perfect monster for his time. In contrast, Spacey always seems to be standing a few steps behind his character, smiling knowingly, smug in his liberal superiority. The actor (with Hickenlooper's complicity?) makes Abramoff an empty suit, so that this K Street monster looks like a one-off freak, rather than jus the latest in a proliferating species.
Ultimately, it's hard to dredge up any semblance of shock or indignation when a Ohio pol speechifies to grease the way for Abramoff to buy casino cruse ships in Florida, or John McCain pretends to be outraged by the lobbyist's bad behavior when he's really chortling at the chance to nail the player who helped smear him during his 2000 presidential run. We're elbowed into outrage as Scanlon raps about the ways in which he will destroy an obstructive "Tonto," jumping up and down like a homicidal cheerleader before a wall full of sepia-toned portraits of noble, long-dead Native Americans. Get that irony, folks?
Truth be told, Washington's conclave of dunces, sell-outs and double-dealers has become so familiar it's hard to get a rise or a laugh out of business as usual. Who doesn't know politics is a flea market, where every threadbare principal can be bought for a price? "Casino Jack" plops this old, distinctly unfunny news on our doorstep as though it was fresh meat.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool.") She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kathleen's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.