AFI FEST 2010 Review: CASINO JACK

Allison Loring

by: Allison Loring
December 17th, 2010

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on November 9.

Rating: 3.5/5

Writer: Norman Snider
Director: George Hickenlooper
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz

The American dream is the simple idea that anyone can rise up and achieve success through hard work. Unfortunately, when placed in the wrong hands, even the simplest idea can become distorted and misused. CASINO JACK tells the story of American lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s rise (and fall) from the political system. After defrauding a handful of American Indian tribes’ through their gaming businesses to then propel himself into further dealings in the casino business, the title of the film becomes clear.

Based on true events, George Hickenlooper’s film shows how money, power, and influence can destroy a person and is particularly damning when it happens to those who are not only public figures, but elected officials who are supposed to act on our behalf.

The film begins with Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) delivering a powerful pep talk to himself that is both incredibly intense and completely entrancing. The fast-paced opening immediately grabs your attention while also introducing us to Abramoff – a man who will clearly stop at nothing to reach his goals. The foreshadowing in his opening monologue revolves around the idea that some people are meant to do great things, to be better, to rise above the mediocre, and there is no reason to apologize for that kind of ambition. And trust me, Abramoff never does.

The scene reminded me of the locker room speech Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) imparted on Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in JERRY MAGUIRE in its almost manic and desperate tone. Hickenlooper must have meant to draw some subtle comparisons between the films as the idea of karma is continually referenced by Abramoff’s business partner, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), going so far as to call it “quan” (a term coined by Tidwell) and showing Abramoff and Scanlon having a literal “show me the money!” moment.

The parallels between Abramoff’s approach towards gaining power and notoriety within the political system and someone navigating the entertainment business are strikingly similar. Not only does Abramoff (and those close to him) constantly quote and impersonate films, he goes so far as to directly compare Washington D.C. with Hollywood, stating that D.C. is the same, only made up of “ugly people.” But unlike Hollywood, D.C. does not want the limelight, and it is Abramoff’s constant pursuit of just that which leads to his eventual downfall.

Although Abramoff is surrounded by memorable characters from his stoically supportive wife Pam (Kelly Preston) to his seedy mafia buddy Adam (Jon Lovitz) to his spineless business partner – the film is all Spacey. Spacey has been getting serious buzz for his depiction of Abramoff and with good reason. He delivers a powerhouse performance that grabs you from the film’s opening scene and never lets up. Despite the fact that he is playing a decidedly corrupt character, you cannot help but get caught up in his relentless pursuit to build his wealth and increase his power. Spacey plays the con man you suspect is more slime ball than heartfelt, but he so clearly believes in what he is trying to do it is hard to tell whether you are being lied to or pulled into his delusions of grandeur.

Hickenlooper does not shy away from the comedic aspects of the story and it is clear that an underlying sense of mockery is present at all times. Hickenlooper plays right into stereotypes, having Texas House Representative Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett) constantly in the company of his hometown priest to Italian mobster Big Tony (Maury Chaykin) taking his meetings over a bowl of spaghetti. These touches are funny, but the near caricature of these characters was almost distracting and I found it taking me out of the film a few times. Even though Spacey is also clearly playing an exaggerated version of the actual Abramoff, he commits so fully to the character it is much less striking.

The film moves at a relentless pace that echoes the same unflinching attitude of Abramoff himself as he goes after each new business venture, each new opportunity, and each increased retainer fee. It is frightening to think that such misuse of our political system is possible and even when there were clearly too many plates spinning and shady dealings to keep track of, it took someone actually rating out Abramoff and Scanlon to bring them to justice.

A spiritual man, it is ironic that in the end Abramoff ends up embodying the proverb “pride before the fall” as he lets his own ambition cloud his judgment. You know where this story is going, you know that no one could ever get away with such blatant corruption forever, but it is in watching how we get to that point that so enthralling. Even though you know you are getting in a car that is going to gun it to 120 aimed directly at a brick wall, you get in and put on your seat belt, because if anything, you know it’s going to be one hell of a ride.

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