Friday, January 14, 2011

Reel Thoughts: Know Jack

It’s a surreal experience to watch Kevin Spacey play disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack and then watch the real Jack Abramoff in the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. The story is the same, but Spacey’s version is a lot more fun in a true-crime way. The documentary is more depressing, since a lot of the right-wing people implicated in the scandal escaped unscathed and still wreak havoc to this day.

Spacey (in a Golden Globe nominated performance) plays Abramoff as a mass of contradictions, an Orthodox Jew who pals around with the Christian Coalition, and who harbors dreams of Hollywood fame. His devoted wife is played by Kelly Preston and his partner in crime, Mike Scanlon, is played by Barry Pepper in full Glengarry Glen Ross mode.

Much like I Love You Phillip Morris, the enjoyment of watching Casino Jack is in realizing that everything you see really happened, more or less. Abramoff’s rise and fall is depicted in entertaining detail as he first lobbies for sweatshop owners in the Northern Marianas Islands, then fleeces Native American tribes through casino gambling scams, and then hitches his fortunes to Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), a sleazy entrepreneur with mob ties. Lovitz nearly steals the show in a scene where he is attacked with a ballpoint pen, but overall, the film belongs to Spacey and Pepper.

The late director George Hickenlooper juggles all of Jack’s schemes admirably, so that we understand the method to Abramoff’s madness. Casino Jack is a sadly American tale that may only get worse with the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporate election donations. Consider yourself warned.

UPDATE: Casino Jack is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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