Don't gamble on Casino Jack

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By Matt Brunson

CASINO JACK

DIRECTED BY George Hickenlooper

STARS Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper

2010 saw the release of an informative and entertaining movie about Jack Abramoff, the powerful right-wing lobbyist who ended up behind bars for bribing public officials and swindling Native American tribes. Unfortunately for the makers of the feature film Casino Jack, that would be Alex Gibney's documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

This new Casino Jack — like Country Strong, opening wider after a year-end Oscar-qualifying run — finds Kevin Spacey essaying the role of Abramoff, although the lack of surprises in the actor's performance always reminds us that it's Kevin Spacey, not Jack Abramoff, up there on the screen. Abramoff is a hideous human being in real life, but writer Norman Snider and the late director George Hickenlooper make the mistake of attempting to humanize this Washington weasel by adding self-righteous monologues, unconvincing moments of introspection and an it's-all-the-system's-fault! approach. Admittedly, flawed or conflicted protagonists are generally more interesting than out-and-out heroes or villains, but that's not a requirement, as such pictures as Scarface and Peeping Tom have proven.

The film's biggest fault is that it tackles the whole sordid affair like a comedy. A surreal satire that accentuates the absurd might have worked (think Robert Altman or even Blake Edwards), but Hickenlooper adopts a loud, jokey approach that often relies on buffoonish performances (the cast includes Jon Lovitz), a slapstick pace, and too much attention paid to Abramoff's fondness for mimicry. Yet given the real-life tragedies instigated by Abramoff and his Republican buddies like Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed and George W. Bush (who predictably claimed not to even know Abramoff after the scandals broke), I doubt many people will be laughing.

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