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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Screen /  Missed payoff
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Thursday, January 6,2011

Missed payoff

By Betsy Sharkey
Maybe in a few years, the high-flying machinations of notorious Washington puppet-master Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, his partner in crime, will be funny. But even with Kevin Spacey trying his carnival barker hardest in Casino Jack, it still feels too painfully close to find much humor in Abramoff ’s now legendary, and illegal, lobbying efforts.

 

If a fast-talking manipulator of political egos wasn’t hard enough to make appealing in the way of, say, Michael Douglas’ Wall Street abuser, there were other problems facing this fictionally flip tale. The biggest? It was beaten to the punch line earlier this year by Alex Gibney’s very fine documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which audiences didn’t much want to see either. Coupled with the news reports earlier this month that Abramoff had completed his prison sentence at a Baltimore halfway house, it makes the film a little too deja vu all over again.

Directed by George Hickenlooper, who died from an accidental drug overdose at 47 just a few months before the film’s release, Casino Jack uses some conventions more often employed by documentaries. It is in the documentary world that Hickenlooper arguably did some of his best work, most notably the 1992 Emmywinning behind-the-scenes look at the star-crossed production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

 

 

Here, using documentary-style dialogue to deliver relatively straightforward explanations proves effective in filling in the complicated details of the wheeling and dealing Jack did with Indian casinos, hence his nickname. But at other times, it can feel heavy-handed, for example, when the word “lobbyist” is deconstructed onscreen like a Webster’s definition.

By the time we meet Jack, he’s a powerhouse of influence trading, well known around the Beltway. Along with his sycophant-sidekick Scanlon (Barry Pepper, very believable as an oily slickster), they prove to be quite the fleet-footed, tap-dancing pair, one step ahead of being caught until they are.

Pepper and Spacey try to get the chemistry of the partnership cooking so that when things combust you’ll better understand, if not care, about the fallout. But too often the actors occupy the same space, but are not in the same place, the one where a believable human connection exists.

As the stakes get higher, the schemes get more desperate and the characters Jack rubs shoulders with are more of the admitted mobster types. But instead of ratcheting up in intensity, the filmmakers opt for comic relief in the form of Jon Lovitz, in a bizarre buffoonish turn as a friend of Jack with mob connections.

Other people spin in and out of Jack’s orbit, most notably wife Pam (Kelly Preston) and Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), the former Bush-era House majority leader recently convicted of money laundering.

But Jack is very much the sun in this world, and Spacey its caustic center. Though the film is peppered with one-liners tailor-made for Spacey to sling with stinging effect, it doesn’t so much leave you laughing as just weary, and wishing this weren’t a true story at all.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com

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