By Scott Martin
Casino Jack, Canada, 2010
Directed by George Hickenlooper
The most unfortunate thing about this film isn’t that it degrades the importance of Jack Abramoff’s crimes down to a heist flick along the lines of 21 (2008), nor is it that its screenplay has all of the emotional depth and latitude of Shrink (2009). It’s that this is the late, yet formidable as ever, Maury Chaykin’s last film. Thankfully, his role let him go out in style, and with this film, style is just about all there is. Director George Hickenlooper passed on after filming this project as well.
Where the film’s complete failure begins is with its screenplay, though writer Norman Snider got a couple of things right. Everything he wrote about is ridiculous and, from an outsider’s perspective, kind of funny, if not incomprehensible. What he left out, though, was the weight of Abramoff’s actions, and just how important and destructive they were. He creates one-sided characters and injects them into a 3D labyrinth of movie quotes, political disdain, and Kevin Spacey doing impressions. So. Many. Damn. Impressions. I felt like I was watching another one of Kevin Costner’s movies that “just happened to involve baseball.” It got tiresome, and it wasn’t amusing the first time.
The film’s failure is exponentially furthered by the performances. Spacey, who always manages to be completely magnetic, is the only one who survives the proceedings. Everyone else, with the stated exception of Maury Chaykin, who has never failed at anything, sinks into Snider’s textual abyss. Barry Pepper channels his inner frat boy in his portrayal of Mike Scanlon, Abramoff’s right-hand Padawan apprentice, and sprinkles his performance with an abundance of annoying and overly whiny tics. Kelly Preston and the rest of the wasted cast are there for reactionary moments and have nothing to work with in order to further their characters. Even Graham Greene’s talent is snuffed. It’s almost as if Snider wanted this to strictly be Jack Abramoff’s film.
Hickenlooper, a director I’ve found to be enormously gifted (especially in the field of character pieces), if working with a better screenplay, would have been able to employ his documentary background to make a film that cracks; unfortunately, based on one of the worst screenplays I’ve run across in years, everything he and Spacey try to do just fizzles. It’s rare that a film is completely undermined and literally ruined by the screenplay, but that is the case with this one. It’s almost too disrespectful to Abramoff, if that’s possible, though I’m not sure it is.
By turning a corporate sleazebag into the guy you want to have a beer with and just give a great big hug, the film loses its power from the first frame. At the introduction of the film, Spacey stands in front of a mirror and does his best to deliver a frighteningly weak monologue, a la Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). He’s Jack Abramoff, and yes, he works out every day. Why we need to know that is far beyond me, but he does, and he reminds us. A lot.
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