When reviewing movies that are based on true stories, film critics – myself included – often lament that a documentary on the same subject matter would have been much more interesting. With “Casino Jack,” we can finally prove that statement, since this year’s non-fiction treatment of the Jack Abramoff story, Alex Gibney’s “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” crackles and engages where this docudrama falls flat.
Kevin Spacey – whose performance feels like a greatest-hits compendium of every big-screen a-hole Spacey has ever portrayed – stars as Abramoff, a cheeseball Hollywood producer (his biggest credit was the Dolph Lundgren vehicle “Red Scorpion”) turned A-list Washington, DC insider thanks to his lobbying connections and shameless kowtowing to the worst instincts of the new millennial GOP.
To keep the money flowing, Abramoff turns to Indian tribes who are finally achieving financial independence through their casinos, and scares them into hiring his company for exorbitant rates to keep the government off the tribes’ backs and to scare neighboring tribes off of opening their own casinos. What really happened was that Abramoff took their cash and used it to line his own pockets, as well as those of high-powered connections like Tom DeLay.
If you’ve seen “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” you know that this is a fascinating tale of hubris about a devout Jew who knew how to work a room and who devoted his money to opening restaurants and living a high-roller lifestyle. But as rendered in “Casino Jack” by writer Norman Snider (“Dead Ringers”) and director George Hickenlooper (who died suddenly this fall while promoting the film), we get a series of criminal-biopic clichés. (Here’s the “woo hoo, we’re rich!” montage, there’s the part where powerful “friends” will no longer take his phone calls.) This film gets so generic that you could almost swap out scenes with this summer’s tedious “Middle Men” and no one would notice.
An exceptional documentary can make us believe the strangest things about people, while a clumsy fact-based narrative makes normal behavior look contrived and ridiculous. “Casino Jack” has Abramoff constantly doing lines from old movies, and while it may be that the real-life felon actually punctuated his conversations with bits from “The Godfather,” it plays utterly artificially here. All of which is to say that one suspects the real figures in this story are much more interesting than the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts we’re given here.
While Spacey’s performance gives us nothing new, the film does allow for some interesting moments from Barry Pepper (as Abramoff aide-de-camp Michael Scanlon) and, of all people, Jon Lovitz, playing a sleazy businessman Abramoff uses as a front when he buys a fleet of Florida-based gambling ships. But as Mrs. Abramoff, Kelly Preston gets very little to do but frown and look concerned about her husband’s expenditures.
The chicanery, malfeasance, and downright flim-flammery of the first years of this century have been catnip for documentary filmmakers. In 2010 alone, we got not only “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” but also “Inside Job” and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.” And with stories these outlandish – and documentarians talented enough to tell those stories well – it raises the bar for novelists and narrative filmmakers who attempt to capture the lunacy and the selfishness of our times.
Thanks to Alex Gibney and the 24-hour cable news cycle, I know Jack Abramoff. And you, Kevin Spacey, are no Jack Abramoff.
"Casino Jack" opens in limited release on Friday.
Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas" available on Amazon.com and the DVD Editor of Movieline. He's also written for MSNBC and the Rotten Tomatoes Show.