Film review: Casino Jack

A flawed satire of the moral duplicity at the heart of American politics wins Duncan Wu's qualified praise

May 12, 2011


Credit: ATO Pictures


Casino Jack


Directed by George Hickenlooper
Starring Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper and Kelly Preston
Now on release in Europe

Mediocrity is where most people live," says Jack Abramoff (played by Kevin Spacey) in the opening scene of Casino Jack. "You're either a big leaguer or a slave clawing your way on to the C Train!" I'm intrigued that the makers of this film have no bone to pick with that view of the world, nor with political lobbyists per se, of which the real-life Abramoff - brought down in 2006 by a huge corruption scandal - was one. Instead, Casino Jack focuses on the moral duplicity by which Washington wheeler-dealers make their living.

"Lobbying is nothing more than American-style democracy in action," says Abramoff early on, and the film sets out to reveal how true that is. It conducts us through a Byzantine labyrinth of crooked dealings initiated by Abramoff, involving floating casinos, Native American tribes, George W. Bush, the Capitol Hill Bible Study Group, Mafia hit men, a disgraced mattress entrepreneur and a red-and-black spotted thong. The outlandishness of this catalogue indicates how intricately plotted the film is, shading at moments into incomprehensibility - something in which the film's makers appear to revel. That would normally be a solecism, but it is clear that the complexity of Abramoff's misdeeds was in part the means by which he was able to justify them. Another plank of self-justification was his desire to use his ill-gotten gains to establish a Jewish school for his sons. (Abramoff converted to Orthodox Judaism having seen Fiddler on the Roof.)

"This has all the subtlety of a Thai whorehouse." That remark, made by one of the film's characters about a casino, could apply equally well to the comic manner of the film. It is essentially old-fashioned satire in the spirit of Paddy Chayefsky's script for Network (1976), depending on grotesque (although not implausible) exaggeration.

Film-makers have put politicians in the spotlight many times before, memorably in Wag the Dog (1997) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007); what I admire about Casino Jack is its refusal to suggest that Abramoff was just one bad apple, or that anything can be salvaged from the system that turned him into the monster he became, capable of bringing down some of the most powerful politicians in the US.

"We're under horrific attack from the worst forces in our culture!" Abramoff shrieks down his mobile phone at one point. "We're super-fucked here!" He is right on both counts. The politicians who were to condemn him acquired power thanks to his shady deals; more than anyone else, he understood how venal and self-serving they were. And that, ultimately, is what the film is about: the hypocrisy of a system in which greed and dishonesty are permissible so long as they keep out of sight.

All the same, Casino Jack does not spare Abramoff, who is condemned less for the crimes that sent him to prison (mail fraud and conspiracy) than for salving his conscience with a dubious attachment to charitable causes.

Casino Jack has failed commercially and critically in North America, and at the time of writing it's anyone's guess as to whether it will gain theatrical release in the UK. (There was just one other person in the auditorium when I saw it, and he was selling ice cream.) I can see why it hasn't attracted audiences; its undiluted contempt not merely for politicians but the entire American political system was never liable to go down well on home turf. And there are problems with the script, which chucks everything in with gay abandon, allowing itself to wander up dead ends and indulge a taste for the obscure. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn't likely to please everyone.

On the plus side, Spacey delivers a committed and energetic performance despite unpersuasive hair colouring - although I suspect that the more energy an actor throws into a role, the more he or she is compensating for shortcomings elsewhere. The supporting cast is strong, too, especially Barry Pepper as Abramoff's protege Michael Scanlon. Director George Hickenlooper (whose last film this was before his premature death last November) gives what shape he can to Norman Snider's confusing script.

Whatever its flaws, I find it impossible to dislike a drama in which the central character comments: "Washington is Hollywood with ugly faces."

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