While TRON: Legacy may be dominating the television airwaves with trailer after trailer for Disney’s big-budget sci-fi adventure, Casino Jack, George Hickenlooper’s stranger-than-fiction story of real-life “Super Lobbyist” Jack Abramoff has been quietly racking up award season buzz – with several nominations already on the table (including one Best Actor nod for Kevin Spacey).
The true story of Abramoff’s downfall is certainly compelling source mater – but does Casino Jack deliver as enjoyable film entertainment?
A film based on the story of one of the most greedy, and charismatic businessmen to ever set foot on Capital Hill may not sound like something a lot of moviegoers would want to see following one of the worst recessions in America’s history. However, with the late George Hickenlooper at the helm, Casino Jack manages to find an intriguing balance between cautionary tale and comic revelry - letting the loony events of the actual SunCruz Casinos scandal speak for themselves.
If you’re unfamiliar with Casino Jack, or Jack Abramoff himself, here’s the official synopsis from ATO Pictures:
“Inspired by true events that are too over-the-top for even the wildest imaginations to conjure, Casino Jack lays bare the wild excesses and escapades of Jack Abramoff. Aided by his business partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), Jack parlays his clout over some of the world's most powerful men with the goal of creating a personal empire of wealth and influence. When the two enlist a mob-connected buddy (Jon Lovitz) to help with one of their illegal schemes, they soon find themselves in over their heads, entrenched in a world of mafia assassins, murder and a scandal that spins so out of control that it makes worldwide headlines.”
In a world where the “based on a true-story” founding of Facebook movie, The Social Network, might live-on as the “true story” for many viewers, it’s becoming increasingly important for films, based on real events, to work hard at both telling a convincing story while being careful with the liberties they’re taking. It’s no surprise that Hickenlooper successfully balances the facts with intriguing story-telling, given the success of the director’s critically acclaimed documentary, Hearts of Darkness - which chronicled the production of Apocalypse Now.
While this film is obviously not a documentary, that privilege already belongs to documentarian Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money (which will undoubtedly get a bump in visibility following the buzz around Hickenlooper’s film). Casino Jack still manages to hit all the necessary story beats and fill-in the gaps with fictionalized, but honest, emotional performances by the cast.
As Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey succeeds in a nearly-impossible challenge: finding humanity and charm in a man who is genuinely guilty of a laundry list of selfish and abhorrent ongoing criminal activity: bribing public officials, defrauding American Indian tribes, as well as devious business practices that, although Abramoff didn’t know at the time, led to the murder of SunCruz Casinos’ owner, Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis.
However, despite the enormous number of people who Abramoff hurt or took advantage of – Spacey manages to keep the character grounded, tapping into his devout Jewish Orthodox beliefs, his devotion to his family, as well as his penchant for movie-character impersonations. Whether frank, charming, or angry, Spacey captures a real man, not the media caricature many have come to know, who could not see the forest for the trees.
Barry Pepper also delivers as Abramoff’s business partner, Michael Scanlon, who acts as an enjoyable foil for the mostly cool and crafty character portrayed by Kevin Spacey. Pepper’s Scanlon is often in-over-his-head, which drives Abramoff into dangerous waters without anything substantial to cling to when all of their shady dealings begin to catch up with them. Similarly, Jon Lovitz utilizes his usual comedic shtick, offers a performance that isn’t too over-the-top and successfully compliments the rest of the cast. Sure, it’s still type casting and not all that different from other roles that Lovitz has portrayed in the past, but he finds the right line between smarmy mattress salesman and the kind of person that could conceivably stand alongside a big-wig like Jack Abramoff.
This balance between the unconscionable Abramoff dealings and the comedy of the insecure, as well as desperate, men behind them is what makes the story of the real-life Casino Jack such a compelling film. The ultimate message of the film can be heavy-handed at times; but if nothing else, the film raises awareness and prompts discussion, regarding the influential role of lobbyists in Washington D.C. – and the dangers that arise when backdoor deals take precedent over the well-being, and best interest, of the American people.
With so many high-profile films vying for moviegoers’ attention in the coming weeks, Casino Jack may get a bit lost in the shuffle. The film may not have 3D effects or CGI cartoon characters, but as a result of Hickenlooper’s approach to the subject matter, coupled with a terrific performance by Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack manages to be both enjoyable comedic entertainment as well as thought provoking social commentary.
If you’re still trying to make up your mind, check out the trailer for Casino Jack below:
Casino Jack is currently playing in Los Angeles and New York and will open for wide release on Wednesday, December 22nd.