Saturday, January 8, 2011

Casino Jack

In the opening scene of the late George Hickenlooper's "Casino Jack," Jack Abramoff (played pretty well by Kevin Spacey in a Golden-Globe nominated performance) screams an interior monologue of sorts into the mirror as he's brushing his teeth. He remarks that people think he "moves too fast" (but that him doing this separates him from the rest). This sets the tone for the film, a very swift charting of the events that sent him on a descending arc from "superlobbyist" to federal criminal. It dabbles in a ton of different moods, most prominently that of broad comedy. This has led to people calling the film "clunky" but I felt otherwise, more in the vein of the critic who called it "loopily entertaining."

There is one thing, though, that the film really stumbles with: the screenplay by Norman Snider. I don't think I can remember the last time that I cringed at so much dialogue. Some of it is good, to be sure, but much of it is pathetic sub-sitcom discourse littered with an unrealistic amount of one-liners. The script also overloads on grating mannerisms. We understand from quite early on that Michael Scanlon (played by Barry Pepper, putting up an admirable struggle) is informal and womanizing and that Abramoff likes movies, so do we need to keep underscoring that throughout the entire film? It's sad to see this happen, since when the writing doesn't let the actors down, we can see what might've been.

But, moment-to-moment, one can put this huge flaw to the periphery and focus on the rest of the film, which is actually solidly watchable. It sprawls to follow both Abramoff and Scanlon, lobbyist extraordinares and partners-in-crime, and all of the many other threads that crisscross through their dealings. We see the two at their best, schmoozing and swaying congressmen (such as House Majority Leader Tom Delay). But we also see them losing control, their reaches exceeding their grasps. They devote an extremely dubious amount of time and energy in a cruise ship casino venture (called a "ship to nowhere" for a good reason), trying to funnel the funds for it from less-than-willing Indian tribes and using an disbarred, alcoholic, unreliable lawyer (Jon Lovitz) as their point man.

While this is falling apart, so is Abramoff. His marriage (to Kelly Preston, portraying a character very underexposed) is heading for its close, he's struggling to pay his mortgage while at the same time opening restaurants and Jewish schools, his reputation is becoming muddied, and, most importantly to him, his influence is fading. It's good that the film has somewhat of a sense of humor (like a character says of Abramoff), or the movie's rising unease would have had created the same degree of drags as the insanely depressing "Vincere." Or, for that matter, Doug Liman's more recent Washington saga "Fair Game," which could have used a smile or two. C+


Colin said...

Nice. I didn't like this much, I have to say (Spacey's impressions and Jon Bloody Lovitz ruined it for me) but it's an interesting story. Welcome to the LAMBs!

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