The criminal saga of Jack Abramoff, who got rich as a Washington lobbyist (and stuffed cash into the pockets of many a politician), is a natural for a movie treatment. Not only does it have a “GoodFellas”-like rise and fall, it’s got a humdinger of a central role.
George Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack” does a spirited job of bringing this out-of-control story to light. And in the title role, Kevin Spacey romps around in a way he hasn’t done enough of lately.
As a young politico, Abramoff and buddies like Grover Norquist (the longtime operator behind Americans for Tax Reform) and future Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed helped create the conservative movement that wields power today — but he also spent a few years in Hollywood. He even produced a pair of Dolph Lundgren action flicks.
Abramoff had such a weird life that Norman Snider’s “Casino Jack” script can only allude to some of those incidents.
It concentrates on a collection of Abramoff’s seediest dealings from the 1990s onward: working with Indian tribes to enforce casino deals, buying up shares in a cruise-ship casino and rigging a loophole that allowed companies to manufacture products in the Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory, so that workers could be paid peanuts but the products would be stamped “Made in USA.”
When Abramoff’s bribery and influence began to surface in the mid-2000s, the sound of people trying to scurry away from him could be heard from the Oval Office on down. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, didn’t make it far enough. He’s depicted in the film as one of Abramoff’s partners in corruption, happy to bend congressional business for the sake of all-expenses-paid trips and campaign contributions.
In fact, there’s such an abundance of crookedness, the movie gets a little repetitive. Hickenlooper wisely keeps the momentum at a brisk pace and even plays many scenes as screwball comedy. (Sadly, this director died a couple of months ago, not yet 50 years old.)
There’s only so much sleaze a single movie can absorb, and between Abramoff’s lobbyist colleague (a spirited performance by Barry Pepper, who — here and in “True Grit” — is being reborn as a character actor) and a shady businessman (Jon Lovitz), “Casino Jack” just about drowns in it.
Granted, the film gives some credence to Abramoff’s sincere religious feeling. Instead of mocking him, it shows how his strange personality traits sat side by side.
At the center of it all is Spacey’s performance. It’s a canny piece of casting, because the real Abramoff was known for quoting movies and imitating Brando and Pacino; Spacey (as watchers of talk shows have known for years) is a lethal mimic.
Beyond the mimicry, there’s a point to be made. The level of corruption embodied by people such as Abramoff and DeLay went beyond greed: They got high on the movie-star-level perks, drinking in the thrill of acting in some imaginary gangster movie. Showbiz and politics no longer have boundaries, as DeLay demonstrated so gracefully during his stint on “Dancing With the Stars.”
“Casino Jack” groans under the weight of its information and a visibly limited budget. But for stirring up some reminders of the realities of lobbyists and politicians, it performs a useful, and often entertaining, duty.
Kevin Spacey revels in the role of Jack Abramoff, the sleazy lobbyist who filled the pockets of many a D.C. politician before getting exposed in the mid-2000s. The movie wallows a bit in the corruption and overloads the info, but it gives a bracing (and often comic) view of the merging of politics and showbiz.
Rated: R for language, nudity, violence
Showing: Seven Gables