Everything that is wrong with George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack is conveniently placed in its microcosmic first scene. Kevin Spacey, looking nothing like Jack Abramoff but playing him anyway, brushes his teeth. Suddenly, he stops, stares at himself in the mirror and launches into a fiery monologue, then casually resumes brushing.
This scene is amusing in theory. It would be amusing in reality if the speech wasn’t powerfully lame, and if Spacey (whose presence in this barely releasable dreck is depressing, even after a decade of imprudent career choices) didn’t go all... Kevin Spacey. The abrupt oral-care segues are admittedly funny, but they’re anomalies—the lone moments of decent comic timing in not just this scene, but the entire film. So we open with a potentially good idea ruined by sloppy execution—you should probably get used to that.
How is it so hard to milk yuks from the life and many, many, many fucked-up transgressions of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff? Casino Jack is the second Abramoff burlesque in a year, following Alex Gibney’s longer-named doc Casino Jack and the United States of Money. The former is better (and more comprehensive), but both films suffer from a tendency to overdo material that’s already ridiculous.
Abramoff’s sins are many, and hilariously heartless: He’s been linked to slave labor in the Mariana islands, fleecing Native American casinos, a Mafia murder and Tom DeLay. But, evidently insecure with this fish-in-a-barrel content, Gibney sabotaged himself with glib sarcasm, jokey film clips and cutesy music cues (for example, “Burning Down the House” as Newt Gingrich & co. take over the House of Representatives, get it?).
Even so, this new Casino Jack makes it very clear that documentary, not fictionalization, is the ideal format for a look at Abramoff—but if you must, at least cast a lead who can pass as a younger version of the character. We see only the back end of Abramoff’s political career shortly before his spectacular downfall, leaving scores of juicy bits in the past: Abramoff’s days as a New Republican at Brandeis and in the Reagan administration, his friendships with the unsavory Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist (barely featured) and his 10-year stint in Hollywood, where he co-conceived and produced the Dolph Lundgren-starring, ‘roidy Rambo ripoff Red Scorpion, an embodiment of far-right politics and homoerotic machismo.
But say what you may about Red Scorpion, at least it achieved what it set out to do— Casino Jack is a shambles. The bad writing is exacerbated by Hickenlooper’s barn-door-broad direction and lack of comic timing. Not only is Spacey encouraged to go to 11, but so is Barry Pepper, all coke sweats and low-angle nostril shots as partner-in-crime Michael Scanlon. Ditto Jon Lovitz, imported from an entirely different breed of comedy. As for events that happened before the film’s time span, well, they’re alluded to, hoarily and uncreatively, in bad dialogue. Nothing in this film works, save the aforementioned toothbrushing.
Here comes the uncomfortable part: Two months ago, Hickenlooper died of an accidental painkiller overdose. He was only 47. One ought not to speak too much ill of the recently dead, so I'll mention that this unintentional swan song isn’t the worst biopic Hickenloop ever made—that would be Factory Girl, his 2006 account of Edie Sedgwick, a paint-by-numbers history lesson with a laughably fallacious Warhol Factory and the worst Bob Dylan impersonation ever done by anyone, anywhere, courtesy Hayden Christensen. Luckily, Hickenlooper will likely remembered for his breakthrough Hearts of Darkness, the thrillingly trainwrecky account of the making of Apocalypse Now. Whether this was only because it’s tough to fuck up footage of Francis Ford Coppola losing his shit and Marlon Brando consuming bugs mid-monologue remains unclear.
So in the interest of honoring the dead, consider a rental rather than a night out.
Directors: George Hickenlooper
Starring: Kevin Spacey
Running time: 108 minutes
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely