For political satire to succeed, a film needs to a) be funny and b) go for the jugular. George Hickenlooper's truth-based Casino Jack does neither. The story of the stratospheric rise and not-far-enough fall of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is the perfect topic for a wickedly incisive comedy, indicting the oily corruption and sleazy influence-peddling that characterized the Bush years in Washington. No such luck. Hickenlooper's movie is a scattershot and tragically apolitical affair that lurches from one underhanded scenario to the next, landing a few sharp moments but never connecting the dots into a coherent or comedic whole.
It's not that Casino Jack needs to trumpet every unsavory fact about the near-past — on the contrary, movies are best when they use history as a springboard for enlightening or entertaining fiction — it's that it should ferociously and fearlessly get to the sociopathic heart of its disgraced subject.
Unfortunately, the recently deceased Hickenlooper never opens up both barrels on Abramoff (and his cohorts), leaving all character insight to the movie's star, Kevin Spacey. Bad idea. While the celebrated overactor elicits Abramoff's smug elitism in spades, he seems to view the crooked lobbyist as an endearing bad-boy whose ethical contradictions (he's a devout Jew blind to his own moral lapses) are less sociopathic and quirkier. It's a showy yet shallow performance that never tries to explain how Abramoff was able to influence so many political power players (and for anyone who has seen footage of the real man, doesn't square with the lobbyist's understated cunning).
More a highlight reel of the many dirty dealings of Abramoff and partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) — sweatshops in the Northern Mariana Islands, bilking Indian tribes out of millions, manipulating congressional sleazebags like Tom DeLay and K-Street insiders like Ralph Reed, partnering with SunCruz Casino owner Gus Boulis (who was murdered in a mob hit, etc.) — Casino Jack's tapestry of moral bankruptcy isn't even acidic enough to embarrass the recently released-from-prison lobbyist. In fact, it'll probably further inflate Abramoff's ego. After all, the man proudly proclaimed his writing and producing credits on Red Scorpion (an anti-commie Dolph Lundgren action flick.)
There's a moment, near the end of the film, when Spacey's Abramoff fantasizes about tearing the lid off the muck and mire that fuels Washington, launching into a scathing rant during a Senate hearing la ...And Justice For All. It's a small indication of where Hickenlooper's film might've gone if it had bigger balls. And if Abramoff ever did make good on the film's final suggestion that he was going to write a tell-all, the new speaker of the house, Abramoff pal John Boehner, might have a little 'splainin' to do (the "super" lobbyist named a sandwich after him at his D.C. deli).
Ultimately, Hickenlooper, a filmmaker who was better known for his documentaries than his features, further makes the case that 2010 was the year for nonfiction film. Coming on the heels of Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money, it quickly becomes clear how much more informative and engaging a thoughtfully constructed documentary can be on the exact same subject. If you want to know the ugly truth about the insidious effects of America's lobbyocracy on our political system, I strongly suggest you seek it out on DVD.
Opens Friday, Jan. 7, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.