Casino Jack Dir. George Hickenlooper

[ATO Films; 2010]

Styles: political comedy
Others: Factory Girl, Casino Jack and the United States Of Money

Casino Jack is the perfect film for an era where political scandals only confirm sad truths about our government that we already take for granted. Jack doesn’t comment on our malaise (or really anything), but by offering such a dull, pointless account of the corruption circling lobbyist Jack Abramoff, it certainly compounds it.

With countless articles and an acclaimed documentary (also named Casino Jack) already chronicling this K Street affair — a vote-buying controversy less than a half-decade old — one would assume any narrative film on the subject would provide more than just the cumbersome specifics. But if writer/co-producer Norman Snider’s episodic, exposition-heavy script had any clear perspective on the subject, the late George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl) wasn’t the director to get it on the screen. While it’s possible that the casinos and office spaces Abramoff stalked were as banal as what we see on screen, there’s no sense that Hickenlooper was aware of their blandness. Cut out the sound, add some visual grain, and you could mistake the footage for “dramatic reenactments” on TV. Then again, most TV hacks are past showing the preparation of sushi to imply elegance.

The film’s incompetence blends with that of its characters, making it impossible to tell whether Abramoff and his gang were genuine high rollers or losers lucky to have failed so big. Were they a poor imitation of dick-swinging machismo or is it the actors playing pretend? Barry Pepper and Jon Lovitz are outshone by their haircuts, and an unusually hapless Kevin Spacey can’t decide whether to play Abramoff as a well-intentioned Mike Huckabee type or a venom-spitting Kevin Spacey type. Spacey has a modicum of rapport with Kelly Preston (playing his devoted-by-default wife), but their conversations are burdened with laughably obvious, one-eye-on-the-audience attempts to provide backstory. Helping no one is Hickenlooper, pressing the cameras uncomfortably close to the actors’ faces, as if literally trying to squeeze drama out of them.

In a rare, late break from the slow, factual trudge, Spacey interrupts a Senate hearing with a searing homage to Al Pacino’s speech in And Justice For All. The scene is Abramoff’s fantasy, but a relatively exciting one and a notably rare glimpse into the lobbyist’s bitter state of mind. How did Hickenlooper and Snider miss that what’s good for the climax would probably be good for the whole movie? Tragically, Casino Jack leaves its subject where most filmmakers would start.

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