Isn't it fun watching shady characters rise and fall on the big screen? The best are the scenes of excess, when they're at the top of their game. Y'know, with the wads of cash, private jets and completely unnecessary champagne? It's thrilling to watch, because you know it's all going to come crashing down sooner rather than later.
'Casino Jack,' in theaters this week, is a great "rise and fall" flick, featuring Kevin Spacey in the title role. It's based on the life of super-shady lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a man who let greed and ego get the best of him. Abramoff was incredibly well-connected in Washington, D.C., and even claimed to have helped George W. Bush win the 2000 election by wielding his influence. In his eyes, W. owed him, big time. But when Abramoff became entangled in scandal, his friend in the Oval Office couldn't distance himself fast enough.
Abramoff's biggest problem, as portrayed in 'Casino Jack,' was his ego. He was enjoying a lucrative career as one of the country's top lobbyists, but he wanted more. So, he worked his way around the rules by using his "freelance" business associate, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), who wasn't encumbered by the earning restrictions of a big lobbyist firm, like Abramoff was. The two men took advantage of Native American tribes, commanding an outrageous multimillion-dollar fee in exchange for their influence on Capitol Hill.
Even that wasn't enough, though. Abramoff wanted to become filthy rich so he could launch a series of restaurants in Washington and beyond, and open an all-boys Orthodox Jewish day school. He tried to elbow his way into a questionable offshore gaming business that runs casino cruises. It was this deal that ultimately sealed his fate and led to Abramoff becoming embroiled in a murder and fraud scandal.
Since Abramoff is a real person, we all know he winds up in jail, but that doesn't make 'Casino Jack' any less riveting. It's fascinating to watch him build his illicit empire, while at the same time try to reconcile his religious beliefs with his immoral activities. We also get a peek at Abramoff's home life, which becomes strained as his wife grows more and more suspicious about just what her husband is up to.
In honor of today's release of 'Casino Jack,' here's a list of movie characters inspired by real-life falls from grace.
1. Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) in 'Catch Me If You Can.' What a life. Who wouldn't want the life Frank carves out for himself? He really personifies the phrase "Fake it 'til you make it." As a teenager, he gets to fly planes all over the world and successfully cash fake checks like nobody's business. He manages to convince people he is a doctor, a lawyer and much older than his youthful appearance let on. Of course, with Tom Hanks on his tail, though, it all had to come to an end. Nobody outsmarts Mr. Hanks!
2. Dan Mahowny (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) in 'Owning Mahowny.' Yes, even goody-goody Canadian bankers can go wild. Dan isn't just a nerdy banker: He's a closet compulsive gambler who skimmed cash from clients' accounts to finance his deluxe weekly trips to Atlantic City. He develops a taste for being an Atlantic City high roller, which requires him to consistently flash big money (well beyond an assistant bank manager's salary) to maintain. The flick is based on CIBC employee Brian Molony, who skimmed over $10 million in less than two years in the '80s.
3. George Jung (Johnny Depp) in 'Blow.' Those stylin' polyester leisure suits don't grow on trees, so it's easy to see how George gets sucked into the seedy-yet-lucrative world of drugs. When George is at the top of his game, he really does seem to have everything: beautiful women, pool parties, fancy '70s duds and even Pee Wee Herman! But these biopics about notorious drug lords never end well, do they?
4. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) in '21.' Not many "starving" college students get to live large in Vegas every other weekend. MIT student Ben (inspired by the real-life MIT-ers portrayed in the book 'Bringing Down the House') claims he'll only participate in the card-counting excursions to Sin City until he saves enough cash for medical school. But naturally, once he gets a taste of the high life, he wants more and more. We all know these extravagant trips featuring five-star hotels, limos, expensive clothes and fancy room service probably won't last, but it's certainly fun to watch while it does. While Ben's ethically questionable actions aren't quite as, well, questionable as what the rest of the guys on this list did, he is kind of a jerk to his friends once he gets caught up in the card-counting excitement.
5. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) in 'The Informant.' Whitacre seems like an unlikely scoundrel, which makes his actions all the more intriguing. At first glance, this polite mid-Western family man comes across as nothing more than a dorky dad. Upon closer inspection, though, he appears to be a criminal mastermind, serving as a corporate whistleblower for the FBI while simultaneously embezzling millions of dollars from his company. Incredibly stupid and risky, or just plain genius?