Sunday, January 16, 2011

Casino Jack: Abramoff Deconstructed

Following in a long line of movies about the recent crooks in Washington (including Inside Story, Wall Street Two, and more on the way), Casino Jack focuses on the antics of Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbiest convicted of influence peddling and other high-profile schemes and rip-offs.

The release of the movie is timely, as it opens with scenes of Abramoff flying former House majority leader Tom Delay around to various junkets and resorts as part of Abramoff's attempt to buy favors in Congress, something for which Delay was recently convicted. And if Matt Taibbi's recent article on John Boehner is to be believed, the practice or corporations buying-off Congress is hardly over.

The casting of the film is great - particularly Kevin Spacey as Abramoff and Barry Pepper as his sidekick, Michael Scanlon (or Scallion, as one of the characters refers to him). Spacey brings a manic bravado to the character that helps us understand how it was possible that a putz like Abramoff could rip of Indian tribes for millions of dollars, bribe nearly every important elected Republican official, and have the chutzpah to buy a fleet of floating casinos. He portrays Abramoff as both a megalomaniac ("I work out every day!" he says in the mirror, to pump himself up) as well as some kind of Zionist benefactor, opening kosher restaurants and Hebrew schools to satisfy some insatiable need to re-create the world in his image.

Meanwhile, Pepper's Scanlon is a happy-go-lucky, inept prick who has the good (or bad) fortune to follow in Abramoff's wake, sucking up the flying millions on the way.

Together, Abramoff and Scanlon concoct a scam to get themselves hired as consultants to an Indian tribe that needs to keep the Feds from approving a casino for a neighboring tribe. Abramoff uses his bought-off buddies in Congress (most specifically Robert Ney) to scam the Indians into believing he can block the neighboring casino from happening if only the Indians will pay him a hefty sum of twenty million. When the tribe elders balk, Abramoff rigs the internal affairs of the tribe to have the nay-sayers thrown off the council.

All this sounds like it might make a fascinating expose, the way Charles Ferguson does in Inside Job, or a dramatic diatribe a la Fair Game. But the team behind Casino Jack are more interested in creating a political farce a la In the Loop or Charlie Wilson's War.

The problem here is that the complexities of the real-life story are difficult to simplify for the kind of dark comedy that Casino Jack wants to be. The first half of the movie is narration-heavy as Spacey has to handle the narrative weight of explaining Abramoff's complicated schemes as well as giving us a glimpse into his character. Spacey's intense performance also overshadows the black comedy the writer and directors are searching for, and the film takes a while to establish its tone.

At first strident and expository, Casino Jack finally gets its strut when Jon Lovitz enters the story as Adam Kidan, a two-bit Jewish mattress-store owner who's loosely connected to the mob. I've never thought of Lovitz as brilliant, really, but he brings just the right kooky energy to the plot as Abramoff tries to set up the unpredictable Kidan as a front for the floating casino he wants to buy from a heavy-handed Greek having trouble with his taxes. Kidan proceeds to screw things up, and gets his mob friends (particularly Maury Chaykin as mobster Big Tony) into the picture. Lovitz and Chaykin are both brilliant as half-harmless, half-scary fuckups who proceed to ruin Abramoff's life. There's this great bit where Big Tony rubs Kidan's hand saying "kissela, messela" as a relaxation technique, then gives him a sudden "boo," as a scare. It's a great metaphor for how Big Tony goes about doing his mob thing.

Both Big Tony and Kidan are even bigger sociopaths than Abramoff...and Scanlon a bigger fuck up...which is ultimately what takes down Abramoff and associates at the end. By the time we're in the final hearings with McCain, the movie is truly a great black comedy of political malfeasance.

The problem that I have - more than how long the movie takes to get there - is that the malfeasance in question is a lot more serious than the charismatic Spacey allows it to seem. He does almost too good a job making us like this Abramoff crook. But after all, what Abramoff did wasn't a movie - it was criminal - and almost like Abramoff himself, the film doesn't quite want to deal with its consequences.

I like this movie, I really did. The second half is a fantastic black comedy of the influence peddling of the Bush years. It's just that when you really know about everything that happened, you feel more like crying than laughing. I'm not sure the movie knows quite how to handle that tone.

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