"The Be$t Government Money Can Buy"
"Jack Abramoff (and for my money you can leave out the Abram)"
Despite what "The Last Word" at the bottom of the page says, I don't find bad reviews fun to write or to read. It pains me to admit failure...even if it's someone else's. This one pains me a lot, because it seems like such a slam-dunk—a comedy on the rise and downfall of Washington's most powerful lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, played here by Kevin Spacey in a tour de force of excessive grand-standing. That the film-maker who made it died just before it opened (and that he previously made some things I admire) makes a bad notice that much more greivous to write. That I'm sympathetic with the political views espoused makes it more so.
But to these eager liberal eyes Casino Jack is a hack-job, rather than, say, a sure bet. Frankly, if you want the story told better, turn to the documentary Casino Jack and The United States of Money, which is a more thorough, even-handed and truthful account (because it's all real footage of these beasts proudly exhorting their dirty deeds) of the shameless fleecing of America and the flagrant influence-peddling of an all-too-willing Congress.*
Film-maker George Hickenlooper—who died last year on October 29th—and his screenwriter Norman Snider want to make a "Dr. Strangelove"-type condemnation of the black-as-pitch corruption that Abramoff and his cronies espoused in the name of idealism, but it comes across as a loud, crass, unfunny version of events with the film-maker pushing our faces into scenes and hectoring "this is funny, right? Funny? It's funny!" with all the smug self-satisfaction of a preacher cooking marshmallows over a witch-burning...or a politician taking a bribe. Everything is played brooooooooooad, making Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World seem subdued and tasteful in comparison.
There may be some joy in the pilloring, but the style of film-making and the general volume of the acting makes everything seem obvious and crass (with a capitol "K" street) that the feeling of contempt comes early and stays long past the party is over. Barry Pepper is all caricature as Abramoff's right hand-biter, and Spacey does enough bad impressions of his good impressions that the habit becomes tiresome and annoying. I'll bet he and Jon Lovitz yelled "Act-ing!!" after each one of their takes—there can't have been many from the looks of it—and then giggled like it was actually amusing. It's easy to make fun of wretched excess, and especially hypocritical wretched excess, but the film-makers went overboard with the caricaturish, smirking portrayals of everything and it sinks the picture. They could have played it absolutely straight, and the high-handed antics of these high-ideal crooks would have provided plenty of spit-takes and sputtering indignation.
But, they had to have "fun" with it, beating any subtlety into the tarmac or marble-flooring. The result is not fun, and only marginally frown-cracking at times. Good satire has to have an element of cold-blooded revenge to it, with an element of horror in the subject matter, rather than in how it is presented. Casino Jack goes for the easy-sucker bet, and still comes up craps.
Casino Jack is a Cable-watcher. In fact, they oughta bribe YOU to see it!
* Interestingly, the film-maker's earliest credit was the great "making of" documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the ordeal of filming Apocalypse Now...in a reverse of the "truth is stranger than fiction" aspect of the Abramoff story, the true story of Francis Ford Coppola's VietNam epic has more of the tone and feel of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" than any of the adaptations (Coppola's and Nicolas Roeg's) made from the source—a lesson this film-maker might have heeded. Hickenlooper also made such interesting films as the original short of Sling Blade, The Man from Elysian Fields, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, Factory Girl, and was the only one in Hollywood with balls enough to make a film of Orson Welles' last screenplay, the political satire The Big Brass Ring. Sad to go out on this which such past work as his legacy.