What do you know about Jack Abramoff? Better yet, as a film geek, do you care about Jack Abramoff? Let’s say you don’t know who the hell Jack Abramoff is and don’t care to find out: is there anything about Casino Jack I can recommend that’ll get you interested in the movie? How about the inclusion of Kevin Spacey, turning in one of his funnier performances? What about…well, what about Kevin Spacey being funny? Not convinced? Then you might not care about seeing Casino Jack. Read on for the full-blown review after the jump, folks….
Here’s the thing about George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack: it bored me. It bored me very nearly to tears, and it took me more than one sitting to get through the film. This isn’t to say that it’s bad, or that everyone will find it boring. It’s not to say that the script sucks, that the direction’s half-assed, that the performances are terrible, or that there aren’t (infrequent) funny moments. It’s just that…well, look, I don’t care about Jack Abramoff. I don’t care that he stole a bunch of money, I don’t care that he was a scumbag, I don’t care about his ties to the odious Bush Presidency. Just don’t care. I can imagine a version of Casino Jack that might have made me care, but this wasn’t it. Furthermore, I don’t expect to see anyone give it another shot: there’s simply very, very little that’s cinematic about this particular story.
Regurgitating the plot is necessary when reviewing films, but I confess that I’m absolutely dreading doing it here. Such is my apathy for this topic. As you may or may not know by now, Jack Abramoff was one of the biggest douchebags in Washington, DC at a time when douchebags were clotting every street in that city. He was a “lobbyist”– and if there’s a few things I can say I liked about Casino Jack, one of them is that the film really explains what it was that Jack Abramoff actually did (job-wise) very well– and he was a criminal, generally at the same time. See, Abramoff was using all manner of shady tactics to swing voters, legislation, and Washington fat-cats in whatever direction he wanted them to swing, and eventually he was busted being the shady douche that he was. This, of course, led to a highly-publicized-but-in-no-way-surprising arrest, trial, and conviction, so for awhile there, the name “Jack Abramoff” was synonymous with “shady douchebag” much in the same way that the name “Charlie Sheen” is now synonymous with “drug-induced lunacy and megalomania”: Abramoff was a pseudo-celebrity, so it was probably just a matter of time before someone turned his shady-ass life into a movie.
But after reading that paragraph, would you have any interest in this subject? Due to the pedigree of the film, I convinced myself that I did even when I knew better. These kind of films rarely work for me, mainly because I simply don’t find shady, backroom deals that take place behind the government’s closed doors to be shocking, alarming, or worth hiring a team of actors to dramatize. We all know damn well that these kind of shenanigans take place every day– it’s one of the most depressing parts of our modern government– and rarely are they ever worth spending time with outside a courtroom. Rarer still are they worthy of being used as the basis for entertainment. There are a few exceptions, of course (Steven Soderbergh’s wildly underrated and criminally-underseen The Informant! comes to mind; you should watch that three times instead of seeing Casino Jack), but they’re few and far between.
Actually, let’s stop for a moment and talk about The Informer. That was a movie built around shady, backroom deals, as well, but it worked in every way that Casino Jack doesn’t. In fact, if I were teaching a class on “How to Make an Entertaining Movie About a Topic Virtually No One Cares About”, I’d make sure to offer up The Informer! as an example of what to do…and Casino Jack as an example of what to do when you want to induce a mass nap amongst your students. Both films feature well-known, reliable, likable actors turning in solid performances (though, to be fair, Soderbergh’s film features better performances overall); both films have scripts that must have read really, really dry to most of the people that gave ’em a look despite the fact that both contain a fair amount of comedy; both films end with their protagonist in prison. They’re very similar movies, all told, but while I own The Informer! on Blu-ray and have watched it at least half a dozen times (coincidentally, I’d just been watching it a week before seeing Casino Jack), I’d never sit through Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack again.
The biggest, most obvious difference here is this: Hickenlooper tries to play his stuff as mildly comedic drama, while Soderbergh went all-out and turned The Informer! into a balls-out comedy. Maybe someone told Hickenlooper that Casino Jack– and the Jack Abramoff story– wouldn’t be accepted as an all-out comedy, that audiences would be offended by Abramoff’s misdeeds being trivialized to that extent. But if that’s the case, whoever had that chat with Hickenlooper was way, way off-base: not only are audiences perfectly willing to “root for the bad guy” when the actor’s right and the script earns it, but I don’t think that the majority of filmgoers are really all that bent out of shape about what Abramoff did anymore. It’s not like Hickenlooper was making a biopic about Osama bin Laden and had to decide between “hilarious” and “dark and brooding”. Abramoff was a class-A douche, yes, but are you spending any time grinding your teeth in hatred about the guy anymore? Did you even bother getting bent out of shape when the dude was on trial, or right after he’d been arrested? A more comedic take on this film would very likely have been something more akin to Soderbergh’s film, and that’s the version I would’ve enjoyed. This one? Not so much.
As I already mentioned, I had convinced myself that the pedigree behind Casino Jack would elevate it to a level that’d leave me entertained. Simply, I was wrong. I like Kevin Spacey– hell, I really like Kevin Spacey– but I found him to be distant and kinda boring here. It’s hard to put one’s finger on why that might be, though: Spacey’s clearly giving this one his all, and the film’s opening scene (wherein Spacey-as-Abramoff shouts into a bathroom mirror about how great he is in one, long, uninterrupted shot) gave me great hope, but within an hour or so into the film, I was bored senseless. Barry Pepper– an actor who’s got a .50 batting average in my household– does an alright job, and might even be the most interesting actor in the film…but again, I didn’t care what he was doing, I didn’t care why he was doing it, and I didn’t care when his criminal empire started to fall apart. Boring, boring, boring.
This is going to sound absolutely insane after prattling on for three or four paragraphs about how un-entertained I was with the film, but here it is: Casino Jack isn’t a bad movie. There’s a lot here that I can imagine some people really enjoying. In most cases, even when a film’s not targeted towards me, I’m able to enjoy myself if I can identify a few things about it that I enjoyed: the acting, maybe, or the script. Maybe a particularly funny sequence, or good special effects (by way of example, let me offer up The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: I was bored with that one, too, but I appreciated so much about the film, I ended up enjoying it overall). But with Casino Jack, the opposite was true. This might be the only film in recent memory that I’d call “a pretty good movie” that I could also barely force myself to watch. It’s hard to explain, but perhaps someone reading will back me up on this one.
Kevin Spacey– as we’ve already discussed– puts all the cards on the table for this role, and he almost makes Abramoff a compelling character. Almost. Pepper’s more interesting as Abramoff’s right-hand man, Michael Scanlon (and his character’s more interesting because, after all, it’s him and his womanizing behavior that leads to Abramoff’s empire crumbling), and I kinda-sorta enjoyed Jon Lovitz as a greasy-ass local businessman that Scanlon and Abramoff bring in to help push through a particularly shady deal. Kelly Preston’s also serviceable as Jack’s wife, and Twilight fans might be sent into a tizzy by the presence of Rachel LaFevre, who plays Scanlon’s put-upon, long-term girlfriend. But even though all of ’em are doing their jobs perfectly well, they’re delivering material that you simply won’t be intrigued, compelled, moved, or entertained by. Or, hell, maybe you will. Whatta I know? Are you into super-dry pseudo-comedies about backroom government shenanigans? I know that’s a wildly popular sub-genre.
Hickenlooper doesn’t do anything creative in his role as director, but he does make the whole thing a little more entertaining than it might have been in less-practiced hands. A quick Wikipedia-check of Hickenlooper’s resume reveals that he’s never made a film that I’ve seen (though he has been involved with a few projects I’m familiar with), so I can’t compare his style here with anything else of his that I might have caught over the years. I know that the script seems to be the second-biggest problem, that the fact that this just isn’t a very cinematic story is the first-biggest, and so I suppose Hickenlooper deserves some credit for making it as mildly (so, so, so mildly) entertaining as it…uh…is (one is reminded of Clinton saying “Depends what your definition of ‘is’ is” here).
The Blu-ray has a few special features– a gag reel and some deleted scenes, neither of which will blow your socks off– but the “Directors’ Photo Diary” sets a new standard for “Blu-ray Special Features You Couldn’t Possibly Give Less of a Shit About”. If any of these things sound great to you, by all means, give the disc a whirl. Same goes for the film itself: if the story of Jack Abramoff interested you when it was unfolding in the country’s newspapers, I suppose there’s a chance that you’ll be mildly entertained by what you’ll see here, and in that case, sure, check it out. But for everyone else– the people like me, the guys that enjoy horror movies and sci-fi and high-concept comedies and movies that actually provide a unique, wondrous, entertaining, magical experience– this one’s a definite “Skip”. Casino Jack isn’t a bad movie, but I almost wish it was, because then it’d be a lot easier to explain why I reacted so violently to it.
My grade? It’s either a B+ or a D-, I’ll be damned if I know