About nine months ago I walked into a Sundance screening of a documentary called 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money', which was a very pointed indictment of the numerous crimes committed by "super lobbyist" Jack Abramoff and his crew of greedy cronies. Seeing as things like politics and finance hold next to no interest for me, I wondered if I'd find anything to appreciate in the documentary, but I sure as hell did. Director Alex Gibney was able to make Abramoff's numerous convoluted schemes seem more realistic and accessible than any newspaper story, and I found myself appreciating the director's angry yet colorful approach to this potentially dry material.
And I'm pretty darn glad that I went into that screening, not only because I highly enjoyed Gibney's film, but also because I was able to jump right into George Hickenlooper's 'Casino Jack' with most of the information I'd need to enjoy a narrative version of the same story. Plus you could walk into the "movie version" blind and still have a ball watching Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper sleazing their way through Norman Snider's quick, concise, witty screenplay. From Abramoff's early exploits dallying in off-shore sweat shops and moving forward to his abuse of Native American casinos and his horribly bad decisions regarding a gaming cruise ship, the man's most infamous crimes are detailed in sly and juicy detail.
So while 'Casino Jack' has a smart script and some juicy performances from Spacey, Pepper, Kelly Preston, and Jon Lovitz, it's the director's approach to Abramoff's character that sets the film apart. Mr. Hickenlooper has done a few documentaries of his own, you see, which helps to explain why he takes such an admirably objective look at Abramoff. We all know the guy's a crook, so (thankfully) the director feels no need to paint the character with broadly villainous brush strokes. Nor does he paint Abramoff as some sort of misunderstood hero. Between Hickenlooper, Snider, and Spacey, the Jack we meet here is smug and obnoxious, but he's also a religious man with some good intentions and a true affection for his family. Whether you believe that Jack Abramoff was ever a legitimate philanthropist or not is, of course, up to you, but 'Casino Jack' does an impressive job of displaying the man's good and bad in a matter-of-fact fashion.
Mike Scanlon, however (and as played by Barry Pepper) is little more than an overzealous, over-confident, and shamelessly manipulative guy. Pepper brings a subtle sleaziness and an amusing cockiness to the role that makes Scanlon seem magnetic whenever his character pops up. I've no idea if the real Scanlon was this overwhelmingly crooked, but Pepper's rendition sure is fun to behold. Also very funny is Jon Lovitz as a truly unappealing mattress salesman who invests with Jack in a "casino cruise ship," but the schmuck has serious ties to the mob, and that's not something a D.C. lobbyist should be messing with. (Not that Jack or Mike actually care.) Also on board and adding to the whole are the gorgeous Rachelle Lefevre as Scanlon's girlfriend, the reliable Graham Greene as an infuriated tribal chief, Danil Kash as a Greek tycoon with a bad attitude, and the late Maury Chaykin as a colorfully intimidating mob guy.
Unfortunately, those who want a complete and thorough detail of every nefarious act from Abramoff & Co. may find 'Casino Jack' a bit disappointing, as will those who are looking for a simple-minded hatchet job. It's Kevin Spacey's offbeat duality that makes the character palatable, it's Nelson's screenplay that keeps pointing out how absurd this whole affair is, and it's Hickenlooper's deft balancing act that makes the flick, well, kinda fun. And that's not really what we expect from a fact-based biopic that deals with lobbyists, finance, and the shameless fleecing of the American taxpayer.