Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff
Kelly Preston as Pam Abramoff
Ruth Marshall as Susan Schmidt
Barry Pepper as Michael Scanlon
Jon Lovitz as Adam Kidan
Graham Greene as Bernie Sprague
Hannah Endicott-Douglas as Sarah Abramoff
John Robinson as Federal Agent Patterson
Spencer Garrett as Tom DeLay
John David Whalen as Kevin Ring
Matt Gordon as Bill Jarrell
Jeffrey R. Smith as Grover Norquist
Christian Campbell as Ralph Reed
Eric Schweig as Chief Poncho
Xenia Siamas as Flight Attendant (St. Andrews)
Jeff Pustil as Bob Ney
Rachelle Lefevre as Emily Miller
Paolo Mancini as Scott Gleason
Cindy Dolenc as Female Friend
Nancy Beatty as Enid
Damir Andrei as Manny Rouvelas
Stephen Chambers as Art Dimopoulos
Paul Stephen as Reverend Mueller
David Fraser as Karl Rove
Daniel Kash as Gus Boulis
Mike Petersen as Senator Jarvis
Reid Morgan as Brian
Yannick Bisson as Oscar Carillo
Brent Mendenhall as President Bush
Brian Paul as Senator McCain
David Brandon George as Senator Burman
Timothy Watters as President Clinton
John Hickenlooper as Senator Campbell
Graham Abbey as Simon Bowler
Directed by George Hickenlooper
Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) creates a status for himself in Washington D.C. as a “super-lobbyist,” convincing Native American casino owners that he has the ear of high-powered politicians while charging exorbitant fees along with his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) to lobby for them. Things start to get out of hand when Abramoff and Scanlon get involved with Greek mobsters while trying to buy a fleet of casino boats themselves and their empire starts crumbling apart.
The story of “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff is the stuff that Hollywood thrives on since to most, it’s unfathomable that someone in Washington, D.C. could have gotten away with what he did before finally being busted. It seems like perfect fodder for George Hickenlooper, who cut his teeth in documentaries and sadly passed away months ago, and you can tell the late director spent a lot of time doing research to get the facts right. Unfortunately, he then diluted those facts with humor in order to try and make a more entertaining film.
This creates a rather strange tone that veers closer towards dark absurdist comedy than drama, and it’s a strange direction to take with this story. Because of that, the entire weight of the film relies heavily on Kevin Spacey’s performance as he portrays Abramoff like a cartoon character spouting his ersatz catchphrase, “I work out every single day,” taking money from Indians while calling them racist terms behind their back. Even when Jack gets fired from his law firm for ethical violations, his ego remains wildly out of control.
Spacey looks and sounds nothing like the real Abramoff, so instead he enhances the character by doing impressions of other movie characters, spouting their famous lines and high-five-ing his similarly douchey partner and friend Mike Scanlon. Barry Pepper’s impressions aren’t quite as good, though that may have been the point that Scanlon was trying to be Abramoff. For the most part, both of their performances are taken ridiculously over the top to try to make the movie funnier. The rest of the cast isn’t bad, although Jon Lovitz is essentially playing the same character he’s always played–no real heavy weightlifting there–and some of the women, like Kelly Preston as Abramoff’s wife, aren’t given much to do even if its Scanlon’s wife who ultimately brings the whole operation down.
In some ways, the results act somewhat like a companion piece to Alex Gibney’s documentary of the similar name although Hickenlooper’s film glosses over or leaves out large chunks of the story, like how Abramoff first got involved with Senator Tom Delay. Instead, it expects the audience to know a lot of the Abramoff story going in, so seeing Gibney’s doc beforehand would probably be a wise idea for those who never followed the story on the news.
Many of the best known political figures like Bush and Rove only appear briefly, not long enough for anyone to bother doing anything near realistic impressions, but one of the film’s laziest moments has the real John McCain on a monitor at Abramoff’s Senate hearing before showing an actor (who looks nothing like McCain) blurred in the background. This Senate hearing may be the last chance for the movie to find its footing, but it’s once again turned into a showcase for Spacey’s scenery-chewing. After repeatedly pleading the 5th Amendment to every query, he then goes off on a Al Pacino level tirade trying to defend all of the crooked things he’s done.
More than anything, this is a story about hubris and how it can lead to one man’s downfall, but Jack is never particularly likeable so it’s hard to imagine people will be able to empathize with him. As much as it’s fun seeing Kevin Spacey let loose and his charisma and personality is always enough to carry any movie, portraying Abramoff as a loveable rogue does a huge disservice to all the people he ripped off.
Regardless of the tonal issues, this is a slick-looking film that looks far better than one might expect for a movie made outside the studio system, though some of the director’s decisions, like having a soundtrack made up of poppy ditties from Manhattan Transfer just increases the lameness factor of the film rather than making it feel hip or current.
The Bottom Line:
“Casino Jack” is decent at times, almost like a Washington D.C. version of “Entourage,” but it certainly could have been better. The sad truth is that as interesting as the Abramoff case may have been, embellishing that story with so much humor makes the film feel more like a political parody than a document of what really happened. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’d probably be better off seeing Gibney’s doc on the subject instead.