Jack Abramoff: former superpowered lobbyist, current felon who bilked Indian tribes and bribed public officials, and…clown? George Hickenlooper’s fact-based satire, starring Kevin Spacey and his ever-sharp comic timing, offers an antic version of the wheeler-dealer whose ambition and blinkered morality were close to caricature all along. The film follows Abramoff’s glib, high-energy act as he takes parties of congressmen on sunny vacations and persuades them that sweatshops in the Mariana Islands are good for the American economy. Droll and straight-faced, Spacey lets us see Abramoff’s absurdities: an observant Jew, Abramoff reminds an interfaith Bible-study group, “In Biblical times, taxes never rose above 20 percent”—the old “if it was good enough for Moses” economic plan.
Hickenlooper died in October, at 47. Casino Jack, unexpectedly his last film, reflects a career-long passion: affectionate curiosity about the oddities of real-life people, often artists. His 1991 documentary, Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now, is a classic view of a tortured creative process and the crazy extremes of moviemaking. In Factory Girl, Sienna Miller re-created Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. And in Abramoff, Hickenlooper found the consummate con artist. He visited Abramoff in prison and met a guy who loved doing Ronald Reagan impersonations, which helps explain why Hickenlooper called Abramoff “hilarious.”
Although Abramoff’s closest allies were House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other conservatives, the film’s real target is the one-hand-dirties-the-other business of government. Washington is full of weasels, Hickenlooper mordantly suggests, and it’s amusing to watch them squirm, as Abramoff’s empire (Barry Pepper plays his even slimier partner) collapses under the weight of its own sleaze.
Maintaining a lively narrative was never Hickenlooper’s strength, and Casino Jack flags during the few stretches when Spacey is off-screen, especially when cartoonish thugs (Jon Lovitz as a disbarred lawyer) help him try to take over a floating-casino cruise line. But Hickenlooper’s sense of the ridiculous is bracing, a reminder that his death is the film world’s genuine loss.
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