Star Kevin Spacey powers ahead as the lead of CASINO JACK, director George Hickenlooper‘s inspired-by-true-events cautionary tale of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose hubris and hunger for personal wealth and political influence led to his downfall and prison. Now available on Blu-ray and DVD, this film will entertain with Abramoff’s excesses in ego and perhaps have you grinding your teeth at the Bush-era abuses of lobbyist powerbroking in Congress. The film smartly balances between moments of hilarity and horror that Abramoff and his K Street contemporaries made lobbying into a self-aggrandizing game of influence peddling which often left morality and legality behind.
From the opening monologue of Jack Abramoff pumping up his ego in a bathroom mirror while brushing his teeth, it is clear CASINO JACK exists in a slightly heightened world of based-on reality, but what may get lost in the exaggerated fun is the very real facts, faults, crimes and avaricious excesses the lobbyist lived and lost. While not a documentary, Hickenlooper’s film and Norman Snider‘s satirically biting script entertainingly supports the facts which Abramoff and the superlobbyist culture wrote large on recent American political history.
Part of the biopic’s success results from immediately hooking viewers into Abramoff’s megalomaniacal, skewed perception of the world and Washington: it’s not Shakespeare by any means, but one gets the sense that Jack sees himself as not far off from such a grand hero, the epic star of his own unfolding stageplay. Unlike a Macbeth or Hamlet, Abramoff exhibits almost no self-awareness that he’s starring in a tragedy of unbounded pride and greed. The film’s title arises from the scandalous fraud committed by Jack and his literal partner in crime Michael Scanlon (well-cast Barry Pepper) against numerous Native American tribes as they lobbied Congressmen for casino gaming rights, demanding outrageous retainer fees from the tribes often paid to fight fictitious opposition against tribal venues. As Abramoff and Scanlon escalate their own lavish spending sprees, the pressure to earn higher fees prompts them into shady off-shore gambling ventures and worse, drawing very unwanted scrutiny and publicity to the previously secretive, backroom art of the lobbyist deal.
Spacey may lack the bearish bulk of the real Abramoff — as actual footage of the lobbyist from the era shows him as rather bloated by his excessive lifestyle — but the Golden Globe-nominated actor makes up for physical size by unleashing Jack’s bombastic personality as a slick-suited con man and self-deluding liar hurtling at full speed toward his own downfall. As noted, the opening “I’m Jack Abramoff, and oh yeah, I work out every day” speech to himself wants to be a great movie monologue, yet wisely actor, director and writer agree to undercut his diatribe’s crescendo by having Jack immediately deflate the moment by going right back to brushing his teeth. Shakespearian theatrics utterly, wonderfully undercut by the mundane banality of life Abramoff is desperate to escape. How Spacey walks this fine line between acidic comedy and unpitied tragedy impels CASINO JACK forward whether you admire the character’s chutzpah or despise his immoral avarice. Also, Abramoff’s actual penchant for doing impressions funnels perfectly into Spacey’s same talent, and appropriately so as Jack not only imitated larger-than-life characters, but attempted to become one, at least in his own mind.
The expansive cast included solid performances by Pepper as the “Dude”-dubbing partner of Abramoff whose desperation exposes how often he’s in over his head on such megalobbyist deals, Kelly Preston as Jack’s supportive and partially complicit wife Pam, and Spencer Garrett as the all-smiles dealer and House Majority Leader Tom De Lay whose political career later ended in his own campaign money laundering scandal. You’ll love to hate Jon Lovitz as Abramoff’s business partner Adam Kidan, a sniveling mattress salesman who gets suckered into Jack’s sea-faring casino cruise deal only to bring down their entire house of cards. Rachel LeFevre engenders sympathy as Scanlon’s significant other who never quite falls for the lobbyists’ destructive indulgence, and underutilized Graham Greene as Saginaw Chippewa tribal representative Bernie Sprague who refuses to let the K Street manipulators get away with their crimes. Look for spot-on performances from Maury Chaykin and Daniel Kash, whose heavies brilliantly elicit laughs which then catch in your throat as menace turns to mayhem before your eyes.
The digitally-shot film looks fantastic in its Blu-ray 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, and the slightly bumped color saturation is a deliberate effect by the filmmaker to support Abramoff’s ever-upbeat view from his fantasy world, spanning the heights of his debauchery to the barren environment of his prison term. Cinematographer Adam Swica‘s visual clarity shows off Jack’s grandiose dreams and exposes his faults in crisp focus. The Blu-ray makes subtle but powerful use of its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for a character-based drama, surrounding viewers with tastes of Jonathan Goldsmith‘s peppy ’60s-style original score and telling audio cues like the cheesy bleeping-clanking slot machine environs of the gambling cruise ship debacle.
Bonus Features are limited by enjoyable and worth a look:
Casino Jack – A Director’s Photo Diary pays warm tribute to the late director Hickenlooper via his own loving words and on-set photos devoted to his cast and crew. Be sure to watch with the Diary captions turned on to head his comments for each photo, while you enjoy a loop of Goldsmith’s cha-cha-cheery score.
A Gag Reel, titled Hickenlooper’s Follies, offers some laughs and silliness from the set as the cast blow their lines, contend with off-camera distractions, and practice their impressions of notables and each other. A fairly healthy serving of bloopers for those enjoy seeing actors loosen up and let their hair down while the cameras roll.
Deleted Scenes offer additional and extended looks at five key scenes from the film, including a slightly longer tag of Spacey’s opening monologue.
FilmEdge recommends CASINO JACK to viewers who will enjoy a semi-satiric take on the politics of the 21st century, and those who simply appreciate entertaining character work in worthy independent films. It’s also a fine tribute to the tragically shortened career of George Hickenlooper, capping off a sterling career including previous works like ‘HICK’ TOWN, MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP, THE BIG BRASS RING and HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE.
CASINO JACK is available on Blu-ray for only $19.99 at Amazon.com.