Second Prize Is A Set of Steak Knives. Third Prize Is You're Fired.
When you come across a newsworthy item that strikes your creative fancy and feeds the instinct to turn it into some sort of screenplay is that you are not the only supplicant sipping from this particular muse’s font. Jack Abramoff himself would fully appreciate this, both as an unsuccessful Hollywood screenwriter/producer and as a functionally-intellectual piece of human shit. If an idea is good, someone else is probably going to have it, and so you’re gonna have to be the first to the finish line with the finished product, or else you’re going to be considered derivative and lesser than. A Bug’s Life trumped Antz, Dante’s Peak edged out Volcano, Capote outcapoted Infamous, Armageddon aerosmithed Deep Impact, Tombstone made Wyatt Earp its huckleberry — the streets of Hollywood are paved with the corpses of lesser flicks that were released within months of similar tales. Alex Gibney, who has been churning out documentaries with the same quantity and quality of James Patterson squatting out the latest airport checkstand timewaster, fired off Casino Jack and the United States of Money — a documentary which casually rattles off like a Fortune.com article but still manages to capture Abramoff’s dubious sins in all their vainglory. Casino Jack plays like a SNL sketch of the documentary — a wacky hijinks filled romp of extremely talented actors doing terrible imitations of the real thing. The only thing missing is a sound effects machine going boi-oi-oi-oing and an awoogah horn.
Kevin Spacey is astonishingly talented. Anyone who has watched him host SNL knows what a gift the man has for mimicry. On top of that, Spacey is in his element when it comes to playing complete assholes. I don’t want the sensitive loony Spacey of David Gale or Pay It Forward. I want him in fucking Swimming with Sharks. I want him sneering and smugging and scowling and leering like Boris Karloff’s Grinch in Armani. And that’s what you get with Casino Jack. If you’re gonna do a fictional account of Jack Abramoff, you couldn’t find a better slimeball than Spacey and his gravitassholism.
The problem is doing a fictional account of Jack Abramoff. George Hickenlooper’s film plays like one of the lesser Carl Hiaasen novels. You’ve got a seedy lobbyist fresh from duping fresh Senate dupas over the scandalous working conditions of immigrant workers in the Northern Mariana Islands embroiled in a scandal with his sketchy surfer-cum-lawyer partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) to bilk Indian tribes out of their casino money by pandering to Tom DeLay. This lobbyist is devoutly Jewish, runs Capitol Hill bible studies, and financed two films praising the Contras in Nicaragua, one of which was a Z-grade action movie starring Dolph Lundgren. Abramoff decides to turn his efforts to illegally acquiring a failing off-shore international waters casino cruise line run by a psychotic Greek by convincing his buddy Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz) owner of Dial-a-Mattress, to invest. The Greek gets whacked in a suspected mob hit, all of Abramoff’s many scandalous affairs come to light, and by the time the smoke clears, there are numerous arrests, Tom DeLay falls out his Senate majority whip position and Ohio representative Bob Ney is doing jailtime. I kept waiting for Governor Skink to show up and mangle Abramoff with a bouganvillea. All this shit really happened and then some, but Norman Snider’s script turns it all into one of those winking Mamet wannabe flicks. It focuses its efforts on the zany aspects rather than letting the absolute bananas nature of the antics tell themselves. It’s true that Scanlon and Abramoff used to exchange film quotes in character voice and constantly talk about high fives, but that should be background not foreground. However, it’s hard to find complete fault when this tactic enables Graham Greene to play a vengeful Indian council member and Maury Chaykin as a Brando-esque wheezing role as Big Tony, the purveyor of the mob hit on the crazy Greek.
Castwise, it’s fucking phenomenal. The acting is terrific, mired as it is in a shitty story. Spacey’s in prime devil mode, channeling all that is wonderful about being a seedy shark. Barry Pepper turns in his second fucking amazing performance of the year, right behind Ned Pepper in True Grit. I guess Pepper wants us to start taking him seriously as an actor, and after this, I’m ready to believe him. Jon Lovitz fucking rules. Even fucking Jay Sherman would give him kudos (and Kudos, the snack treats). His speech in Tod Solondz’s Happiness is a dream monologue for shlubs, he was a delicious bite of cube steak in the fecal stew of Kelly’s Southland Tales, and now we’ve got him in Casino Jack as Adam Kidan. He’s somewhere between his “That’s the Ticket” guy and a masturbating gorilla, and it’s hilarity. Rachel Lefevre and Kelly Preston don’t have as strongly written roles, but goddamn are they good in them. Most of the female parts are written like sedate and loving until they get their single hellcat moments. Even the incidental cast is outstanding, the ones pulling off the imitations of the various real life politicos they represent, but I still will never see a Ralph Reed as horrifying as Rob Lowe’s version in Contact. Or as the real thing.
Casino Jack feels like nothing more than an epic shame, not to say the least that it was the unfortunate last work of George Hickenlooper and Maury Chaykin. Chaykin was an inspired character actor, and going back over his curriculum vitae is particularly jarring, seeing the vast scope of performances the man put down. If I get a quarter of his career in my lifetime, I’ll consider myself blessed beyond belief. And Hickenlooper was like a ninja assassin, coming out of the shadows to deliver striking work. While his actual directorial work was for things like The Factory Girl and Dogtown, he was also one of the directors on Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about Francis Ford Coppola’s meltdown on Apocalypse Now as well as the director of the short film “Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade” which Billy Bob Thorton would write and go on to direct as his first feature film Sling Blade. It’s a shame that the script couldn’t live up to the assembled talent of the cast.
Casino Jack, and the superior if mildly flawed and uninspired documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, add to the documentarian fervor this year of the crimes our government have committed. Abramoff was particularly horrible — enabling fabric merchants to create Dickensians hellholes on American territories so they could make cheap clothes with the Made In the USA label for pennies while claiming workers that were coyoted from Asia were receiving decent wages and working conditions among just one of his many crimes. The interesting part about this entire project is wondering exactly how Abramoff plans to spin it once he comes out of prison. Casino Jack insinuates that Abramoff would probably pitch the entire thing as a pro-him Hollywood blockbuster, and I wouldn’t be surprised. But his version will probably have more Dolph.