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Thinking Outside the Box with Jack Abramoff

Movie Review: Casino Jack (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Casino Jack is the adventurously titled story-made-movie of the Jack Abramoff scandal. All but the most disconnected from TV and radio will by now have heard of Jack Abramoff, the indicted super-lobbyist for the GOP currently serving his six-year prison sentence for a wide range of corruption charges, including conspiring to corrupt public officials, tax evasion, and fraud.

Kevin Spacey is an eager and energetic Abramoff, introduced to audiences while brushing his teeth in the mirror, as he rehearses the telling off of his accusers. Then comes the call from fellow miscreant, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), in hot water with him: “They're calling us the new Watergate!” he says to Abramoff. And then we see Abramoff taking mugshots before the audience is taken back to over a year earlier when the whole mess started. 

“The reality is that without lobbyists, the wheels of Washington would come to a grinding halt.” Spacey's Abramoff eloquently says. And from there, he lectures the audience – and his fellow Republicans in the Bible classes he teaches, consisting of Christians and Jews – on how the Republican party is a bulwark of truth for God and represents his will for mankind: “Prosperity enables us to help our fellow man.” Abramoff says. You can bet your last dollar you wouldn't expect this much cigar-smoking, golf-playing preachiness outside of a satire piece aimed at the far right, but you see it here—much to the delight of critics and viewers en mass.

The movie's presentation is, of course, not nearly as far-reaching as the scandal itself. Indeed, you wouldn't expect it to be. But the movie brings in key elements for viewers. Beginning with the striking of deals that affect poor jeans-makers in the Mariana Islands, the long-range economic tampering goes upward, with Abramoff bilking the casinos out of nearly 30 million dollars.

Then Abramoff and partners move onto bigger game than the Native American casino players they started out with. Abramoff and cohorts wine and dine clients. They play tennis and golf and walk around holding drinks like vodka on the rocks. They’ll spend one hundred thousand dollars to get investors to fork over the real funds. They want money. They say so in so many words. And then, they work together with other connected high rollers like Tom Delay (Spencer Garrett) and President Bush (Brent Mendenhall)—here, W’s got a too exaggerated accent.

Not only do we get Bush, but Clinton (Timothy Watters). You can see side and back shots of John McCain from the actual hearings. Spencer Garrett’s Tom Delay is by far the best pulled-off representation of the real guy. And he has some wittily self-serving lines that take boasted patriotism about “God and country” to a whole new level. Yes, if I haven’t mentioned it enough, the material is the stuff of a satirist’s dream!

Jon Lovitz's Adam Kidan, a mob-tied defunct mattress salesman and disbarred lawyer enters the picture and things get worse as bogus money wiring and wage rivals begin to tear apart business from the inside out. His cocaine habit and whores with their shown top-up nudity and Kidan's sleazy, used car salesman appearance only adds to the dimension of his role as a grimy figurehead set up to represent Abramoff's interests.  Lovitz is hilarious, but comes off like a sand lizard when he gets serious.

Abramoff, made to be a sometimes annoying, movie-quoting, joke-telling, standup comedian-style “smooth operator,” has a business persona that reflects Spacey’s talent, and at the same time, seamlessly integrates with the character’s less-than-genuine motif as he verbally slithers to defraud others. The greedy and unthinkably hypocritical lobbyist evokes an undercurrent of emotions as viewers become perplexed at just how good a job he does at deceiving himself into thinking he is not guilty of any wrongdoing whatsoever. He gets up in the morning and “works out every day” (he repeatedly reminds us lest we forget). He’s just a fine American, providing for his family to keep them from becoming “slaves” who have to ride the dreaded subway.

With Abramoff, it is righteous indignation accompanying the words coming out of him. Abramoff talks of God and sets out to open Jewish schools and five-star kosher restaurants while not even being able to stay current on his own mortgage payments—and knowing full well he’s a spoof of a Jew. But the shock of blinding insanity brought on by greed only increases as the storytelling brings in the growing sense of woe aimed at this hotshot who takes no hints from the increasing number of enemies he finds himself making. This is in direct proportion to the acting, which improves as the plot thickens from a surprisingly melodramatic opening.

Sometimes funny and always interesting, have no fear that Casino Jack will prove to be a live wire source of entertainment…neverminding some occasional indulgence in stereotypes and some heavy thematic liberties taken.

(JH)

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Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: R (for nudity, violence, language, drug use, and adult themes)
Director: George Hickenlooper
Summary: A hot shot Washington DC lobbyist and his protégé go down hard as their schemes to peddle influence lead to corruption and murder.
Starring: Jack Abramoff "Kevin Spacey," Jon Lovitz "Adam Kidan," Michael Scanlon "Barry Pepper," Ruth Marshall "Susan Schmidt," Graham Greene "Bernie Sprague," Hannah Endicott-Douglas "Sarah Abramoff," John Robinson "Federal Agent Patterson," Spencer Garrett "Tom DeLay," Brent Mendenhall "President Bush," Kelly Preston "Pam Abramoff," Paul Stephen "Reverend Mueller," David Fraser "Karl Rove," Mike Petersen "Senator Jarvis"
Genre: Biography / Comedy / Crime / Drama
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