Ripped-from-the-headlines satire recounts the tale of disgraced Washington, D.C. lobbyist and businessman Jack Abramoff, played with gusto by Spacey. If you were watching the news closely in the mid ‘00s, you’d know that Abramoff was famously involved in a massive corruption scandal that led to murder, mayhem and his conviction, along with two White House officials and nine other lobbyists and congressional staffers.
Since I try to avoid the nightly news like the plague, I didn’t know many of the details and was able to view the movie with my righteous indignation dialed pretty low. Thus, the tale of bribes, pay-offs, corruption, casinos, gangsters and lusty greedy lobbyists unfolded like any other walk on the wild side with a morality crash at the end.
Spacey’s Jack is so deliciously narcissistic and oblivious to his own sloppy ambition that you can’t take your eyes off the guy. He’s a scene-chomping train wreck. But the movie has bigger issues: many times, the characters speak in sentences that sound like something from a movie as opposed to real life, and that’s when they aren’t quoting from other movies. The real-life players who wallowed in excess and tore each other apart are inherently humorous, which is why the gleefully offensive satirical bits work best.
But when the movie isn’t winking at the audience, it falters. Its narrative never compelled me to root for them (as I would any well-drawn anti-hero), nor be offended by their abuses. Maybe it would have helped if I did watch the nightly news and had my righteous indignation turned up to ten. But since the flick never moved me in either direction, I have to fault the movie for that.
POSTSCRIPT: Chaykin, who plays a slow-moving mob heavy, died in July, 2010. A documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010) was released six months prior; This was Hickenlooper’s final film. He died on October 30, 2010, just weeks before its scheduled national opening.
— DENNIS WILLIS