Review: ‘Casino Jack’

1. Kevin Spacey yells a lot in "Casino Jack." I do not know why he yells so much. Maybe he wants to make certain everyone knows he is ACTING? Maybe he realizes he doesn't have a character to play? Maybe someone off-screen kept poking him with a stick right before the cameras started rolling? Regardless of the reason, Spacey pulls out all the stops as Jack Abramoff, at maximum volume, with eyes bulging and veins popping out all over the place. This is Spacey's Al Pacino performance. He seems to be having fun, which makes one of us.

2. "Casino Jack" is the final film by the late George Hickenlooper, so it gives me no particular joy to point out how much of a mess it is. I really can't tell what type of movie it's trying to be. It shows no particular interest in Abramoff as a person -- he's basically a collection of lightly sketched details, from his Judaism to his love of movies to his odd choice of hats -- so it's not a biopic. It doesn't delve deeply or with much conviction into his extensive political ties, so it's not an angry polemic. It doesn't do a particularly cogent job of explaining what exactly Abramoff does, so it's hardly a dossier of all his offenses. It is, essentially, a bunch of speeches.

3. I don't say that lightly. Every line of dialogue everyone says in "Casino Jack" has a distinct underline, a "can you believe they did this?" that doesn't resemble the way any human being has ever spoken. They are, consistently, just providing exposition in a way that's about as exciting as reading an Associated Press news story. ("Can you believe we're bilking these guys for $5 million a month, a figure that's only gonna grow in upcoming years?") I respect that Hickenlooper wanted to fill his movie with facts, but he does it in such a clunky, disorganized fashion that I kind of wished he'd have just written a term paper and gotten on with it. It's odd, though, because as offended as Hickenlooper must be about Abramoff's crimes -- considering he went through all the trouble of making a movie about it -- he doesn't provide much dramatic urgency. We meet Abramoff, we see him making a bunch of money, we see him getting arrested, and that's all pretty much it. The movie just sort of floats from one scene to another without any real point. One wonders if anyone would notice if you just shuffled all the scenes in the middle third.

4. Hickenlooper's supporting cast do him no favors. A horribly miscast Barry Pepper, at his best a likable blank-faced audience stand-in, is an entirely unconvincing LA party boy who keeps calling everyone "dude." (This tic stands in for characterization.) And I'm not sure why Hickenlooper thought it would be funny to have Jon Lovitz play a key character, a sleazy frontman for one of Abramoff's casino business. Maybe he thought he wanted a Jon Lovitz type, but Lovitz lacks even the most fundamental acting chops to be anything else but a hideous cartoon. Come to think of it, pretty much everyone Abramoff works with, from lobbyists to Senators to young Republicans -- people Hickenlooper clearly loathes -- is painted as a grotesque, as warped and sinister as possible, just to make sure it is made 100 percent, no-doubt obvious how you are supposed to feel about everything.

5. In spite of all of this, I suspect there's an interesting story. Abramoff was certainly a character, a devout Jew consorting with the Christian Right, a crazed movie buff, a devoted family man who gets involved in this whole mess just to provide for his kids ... there's a movie here, I'm sure. But Hickenlooper never digs into it much, and is more interested in off-kilter camera angles, a bop-boppin' score and cheap "political" points to dig into it much. People wonder why moviegoers don't like to go see movies about politics, but to me, the answer has always been obvious: We have enough people screaming in our faces every day, telling us what we're supposed to think, not trusting us to figure it out for ourselves. The vast majority of political movies are exactly like that: They're elegantly filmed, self-righteous blogs. "Casino Jack" might be the worst example of this; you are never once given a second to make up your own mind. You're just supposed to sit there and tsk-tsk just like the filmmakers. Hickenlooper was a talented director with a clear, passionate love of movies. It's a shame his last one had to be this one.

Grade: D+.