Returning to the thrilling days of yesteryear, namely the benighted reign of George W. Bush, the late George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack—not to be confused with the doc Casino Jack and the United States of Money—is an improbably blithe cautionary tale, recounting the rise and fall of D.C. superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“You’re either a big-leaguer or you’re a slave clawing your way onto the C train,” the avid antihero (Kevin Spacey) tells his mirrored reflection in the Scorsese-oid pre-credit sequence; most everything that follows in this flat, obvious movie is filtered through Abramoff’s consciousness and dominated by Spacey’s patented brand of smooth insincerity. While acknowledging Abramoff’s role in destroying John McCain’s 2000 candidacy, screenwriter Norman Snider (whose credits include the script for David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers) downplays Abramoff’s career as a hard right political operative in favor of the fun of his wheeler-dealerism and personal eccentricities (bragging about his gym time, compulsively quoting Rocky and The Godfather, mimicking Ronald Reagan).
A riff on the political economy of lobbying and the presence of Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, and Ralph Reed look-alikes notwithstanding, the notion of a permanent lobbocracy is underdeveloped. Flanked by an antic pair of infantile associates (Barry Pepper’s chuckle-headed skirt-chaser and Jon Lovitz’s mobbed-up mattress salesman), Abramoff is a weirdly self-righteous hustler, devoted to faith and family, shaking down gambling-hungry Native Americans and a Greek gangster to finance his plans for a Jewish day school and K Street kosher deli. When the empire crumbles and Abramoff’s clueless wife (Kelly Preston) finally expresses her concern, Spacey delivers his most flamboyantly unconvincing line: “I worry so much that I let down God.”
In the grand finale, Abramoff fantasizes about using a Senate hearing to blow the whistle on the entire corrupt establishment. His rant offers a clue to how this otherwise pointlessly manic movie might have honed its political edge. Although Abramoff is no longer in jail in real life, the movie ends with the perp behind bars. He exits on a cloud of hot air, threatening to expose the Republicans on his release. Really? John Boehner and Eric Cantor (for whom the lobbyist named his deli’s roast-beef-on-challah sandwich) must be quaking in their boots.