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Non-Review Review: Casino Jack

Casino Jack boasts a superb performance from Kevin Spacey in the lead role of Jack Abramoff. Unfortunately, that’s about it. I don’t mean that Casino Jack is a bad film, by any means, it’s just a purely functional one. It manages to take a bunch of interesting elements – a timely political plot, a bunch of fascinating supporting performances, a compelling lead character – and do absolutely nothing with any of them. Despite the rather wonderful potential to tell a parable for our time, the script is formulaic and bland, with nothing by the way of insight.

Jacked up...

The movie opens with great premise. We join Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff, brushing his teeth in the mirror in the morning. Spacey seems to immediately get the character, and to implicitly understand him. There’s something simultaneously pathetic and charming about Abramoff, a guy who feels the need to justify himself to his reflection every morning, tooth brush in hand. “Some people say that Jack Abramoff moves to quickly, that Jack Abramoff cuts corners,” he explains. “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.” It’s not an easy scene for a lead actor to carry, and Spacey does it remarkably well.

The movie’s actually quite fascinating as Spacey talks us through Abramoff’s job as a lobbyist trading in political influence. “Next to God, faith and country, nothing is more important than influence – political influence,” he narrates. “Influence with the powerful is like influence with God: without it, there’s only eternal hellfire, damnation and congressional logjam.” The film seems to be going somewhere as he explains how he manipulates various key officials into sharing his own perspective through liberal application of the expense account.

The jet set...

It’s actually fascinating stuff, and there’s a great film to be made about what Abramoff describes as “American-style democracy in action”, or the ideological decay of the American Right after the collapse of communism. “You guys on the right used to have ideas,” Abramoff is warned, “but now that communism is gone, all you think about is money.” You could argue that political cynicism has been done to death in movies, especially with films like The Ides of March, but it’s very fertile and fascinating ground to cover – what happens to a political ideology when its opposition is largely demolished? Sadly, the film never seems to concerned with exploring some of the more fascinating political aspects.

What we ultimately end up with is a disappointingly conventional “greed leads people to make bad and short-sighted choices” story that we’ve seen done countless times before, as Jack and his posse proceed to make every single text-book mistake that every excessively greedy movie character has ever made. They involve themselves with unreliable people. They spend more money than they earn. His best-friend tells his wife everything and then has an affair. These plot threads might be interesting if they seemed like anything other than generic “tick the box”problems for our leads to face. Even if we didn’t know the movie was inspired by true events, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion.

Hi, Jack...

Despite a strong supporting cast including Jon Lovitz and Barry Pepper, Spacey might as well be surrounded by cardboard cutouts – which wouldn’t really be a problem if the film spent more time with Abramoff. Instead, the film just cuts around to contextualise the character’s circumstances, which means we spend a bunch of time with generic gangsters and generic politicians and generic Native Americans. It’s a shame, because you’d imagine you could get some comedy gold out of some of the sequences, like major Washington power-broker Abramoff attempting to interfere in a small-scale Native American council election, but it just falls flat. Nothing seems ridiculous enough to become farce.

It’s disappointing, because Spacey is really good. His version of Abramoff makes sense and seems like a complete character with his own set of motivations. It’s a shame that we don’t spend more time with him, as it’s fascinating to watch a character who denies any wrong-doing, and yet seems to try so hard to convince himself that’s he’s a decent human being. Spacey does an exceptional job with dialogue that could easily fall flat – I can’t imagine how terrible his constant references to working out might sound if they came from a weaker actor.

In the end, we know they'll end up with Jack...

There’s a lot of material here – this is, as one character describes it, “the ENRON of lobbying” – and it’s just a shame that it all falls so flat, reverting to a fairly standard template of morality tales about the dangers of greed, with little energy to carry it across the line. The only scene that really sticks with me centres on Spacey as Abramoff, as he dreams of launching a rather vigorous (and, some might suggest, reasonable) defense of his actions to the Senators hounding him for answers. We then cut to Abramoff stirring out of a day-dream, and back to a mundane and restrained reality. It feels like the audience is doing the same thing, after being provided with the glimpse of a far more energetic film.

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