Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie with Abe: Casino Jack

Casino Jack
Directed by George Hickenlooper
Released December 17, 2010

Earlier this year, a documentary called “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” chronicled the activities of Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose corrupt wheelings and dealings landed him a six-year federal prison sentence. Abramoff’s trial was sensational mostly for the sheer amount of influence he exerted and the number of people involved in unlawful activities in connection with him. The late director George Hickenlooper, who passed away suddenly in Denver in October at the age of 47, brings Abramoff’s story to the screen in an inspired take with a diverse cast that even includes funnyman Jon Lovitz of “Saturday Night Live” and “Rat Race” in a supporting role, if only to emphasize its status as a comedy.

Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey plays Abramoff, the smooth-talking, extraordinarily popular lobbyist with connections to and dirt on pretty much everyone in Washington. Spacey is fierce, furious, and energetic in his portrayal of Abramoff, fervently declaring in front of a mirror, toothbrush in hand, in the film’s opening scene, “I’m Jack Abramoff and, oh yeah, I work out every day.” There’s a sense that perhaps Spacey is just playing Spacey since the real Abramoff couldn’t possibly be this wild a character. Like Robin Williams and his portrayal of real-life radio personality Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” however, it’s hardly a bad thing, since seeing the performer craft a creative take on a real person is infinitely more fascinating than mimicry (see also Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network" for a more subdued example).

Spacey did actually speak to Abramoff while he was in jail during the production of the film, and he was certain not to do too much research beforehand that might influence his perception of the man. Spacey particularly wanted to be sure that he didn’t play Abramoff as the “caricature he had become; a one-dimensional villain made out to be the greediest devil incarnate on earth.” the other actors took a different approach. Lovitz, who plays Abramoff associate and mattress franchise owner Adam Kidan, researched his character but emphasized sticking to the script over basing the performance on the real-life person.

On the surface, the events of “Casino Jack” might seem serious and even rather disturbing. Yet the way they’re documented and realized in the film is considerably lighter than might be expected, enabling it to be superbly entertaining and quite funny. Lovitz notes that there was humor in the script that was obvious and that there was “simply no other way to do it.” Costar Barry Pepper, who plays Abramoff’s good friend and number one partner Michael Scanlon, notes that the film is still a “cautionary and morality tale about democracy” and can “help open our eyes to our responsibility as citizens.” Whether it’s a retelling of actual events or a comical farce, “Casino Jack” is an amusing and fun film, if nothing more than that.


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