Remember Jack Abramoff? The scandals that erupted around this so-called super-lobbyist resulted in a sweeping Democratic takeover of the United States Congress back in 2006 and helped pave the way for the cleansing audacity of hope in 2008.
Back then, he was an easy villain to hate: His most outrageous deeds included billing Indian tribes for tens of millions of dollars in order to pretend to advocate for their gambling interests, and other salacious misadventures involving offshore casinos in Florida and gangland violence. After the details of his activities broke, Abramoff, his partner Michael Scanlon and one U.S. Representative went to prison, and many other Beltway hacks and bagmen were implicated.
The story was ably retold last year in Alex Gibney's documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and now comes the dramatized feature, Casino Jack, directed by George Hickenlooper and starring Kevin Spacey as Abramoff. The new film takes a novel, comic approach, but it probably isn't compelling enough to interest those who got their fill from the Gibney doc. It's also a bit of an orphan, coming in the wake of Hickenlooper's untimely death late last year. Hickenlooper was only 47, and he'd made an intriguing mix of documentaries, short subjects and fiction features on topics of American culture—and counterculture. At first blush, Abramoff might seem like a departure for him, but his last feature was Factory Girl, in which Sienna Miller played the doomed Edie Sedgwick, and despite its hipster milieu (and despite its outrageous depictions of Andy Warhol and a character intended to be Bob Dylan), it was an American story, too, in which people conjure up public personalities that have little relationship to good ethics or common sense or self-preservation. In America, after all, you can be whoever you want to be—and the people who don't die trying too hard often end up with second acts as subjects of a movie, a movie like Casino Jack.
What distinguishes Hickenlooper's approach from the proper indignation of Gibney's film is that he's interested not so much in how our federal government is so corrupted by lobbyists and their bags of cash, but how this culture allows particularly demented, flamboyant operators to flourish—not just Abramoff and Scanlon, but people like "Hot Tub" Tom DeLay and the odious, ineradicable Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist.
Their amoral fecklessness can be fun to watch. Indeed, the film opens with Spacey, as Abramoff, talking to himself in the bathroom mirror, building to a crescendo of livid rage before ending on a punch line. It's a nicely done satire of the "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough" routine, but it's also an riff on Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta doing Marlon Brando in the mirror in Raging Bull. In America, we're the stars of our own movies, and Abramoff was particularly prone to this vanity. His first ambition was to be a movie producer, and in his office he keeps a poster of Red Scorpion, a 1988 Dolph Lundgren film that he co-wrote and co-produced. He and Scanlon are forever annoying their familiars with character impressions and movie quotes ("You broke my heart, Fredo," etc.).
The light touch seems like a good strategy, but Spacey wears thin as Hickenlooper overindulges his star, allowing him to perform distractingly dead-on impressions of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that only serve to bring scenes to a halt. Spacey's got chops, but he reeks of calculated insincerity (it's no accident that his career-defining role was Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects). When the film shows a clip of the real Abramoff over the closing credits, we realize he was a garden-variety jock and schmoozer who went into politics because it was easier than the movie business. He wasn't a Spacey-like dweeb, so a conventionally bland charmer would be more appropriate for the role—someone like Mad Men's Jon Hamm would have been just right.
If Hickenlooper defamed Warhol and Dylan in Factory Girl, his last film seems to rehabilitate someone we thought we were done with. The one-time movie producer granted prison interviews with Hickenlooper and Spacey, and the charm offensive largely paid off. Meanwhile, many of the supporting swindlers are well cast: Spencer Garrett plays DeLay as a smirking rake who wears his alleged Christian born-again-ness like a comb-over, but my favorite is Jon Lovitz, who steals scenes as a pathetic, contemptible but oddly resilient mob patsy. Hickenlooper and his screenwriter show little imagination with the women, who are either maternal, neglected partners of the fun-loving guys, or disposable sex kittens.
Jack Abramoff was ultimately an irrelevance, disdained along K Street precisely because he brought unwanted attention to their profession, much like an attention-seeking brothel keeper or mobster. While Hickenlooper's interest is in just how easy it is for grifters to peddle influence in Washington, he fails to show just how deeply corroded our democratic system is. The corruption is endemic. Clowns like Abramoff draw attention to it, but when they're silenced, business continues as usual.