2010 seems to be the year that Hollywood universally decided to take its look at one of the great government scandals this past decade, producing both the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and this accompanying (albeit more fictionalized) account of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. After seemingly searching for a juicy role since his duel Oscar winning performances in the mid to late '90s with The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, Kevin Spacey is back in fine form and dominates the screen in this frequently enjoyable, though heavily flawed, rise and fall fable.Oddly, what makes this movie great also represents its largest shortcomings. The acting is as varied as Abramoff’s excuses pertaining to the generous "donations" he receives in the film itself. Barry Pepper as Jack’s right-hand man Michael steals scenes at a whim when given the chance and could have easily elevated the film further if given more screen time. Spacey is superb bringing a delicious blend of pompous charm and sleazy anger to the role, and even manages to deliver both a credible Sylvester Stallone and Al Pacino impression amidst the political turmoil his character eventually encounters.On the other hand, there are some disastrously misguided casting choices, beginning with Kelly Preston as Jack’s wife and even though she exhibits some swagger towards the beginning to the film, she is unable to keep up with more skilled thespians as situations escalate towards the finale. The most egregious error is most certainly the inclusion of Jon Lovitz as the owner of a cruise line and casino who undertakes business dealings with Abramoff. Lovitz has proven himself a skilled comedian in supporting roles and did consistently great voice work on The Simpsons. Here, he is an unmitigated disaster, single handily sinking the picture on multiple occasions. He seems oblivious as to when to calm down, his camera mugging and inflections are grinding, and he is apparently unable to quit being Jon Lovitz and simply shut up; this is simply a poor choice by late director George Hickenlooper.The story at play is a fascinating one, and seeing Jack at his manipulative best even as his world comes crashing down is engrossing. The middle portion however does its bookend acts an injustice, sagging down the segments exploring the infamous lobbyist rise and his inevitable fall. Hickenlooper seems unable to decide how to structure the transition; not how Spacey handles the material pertaining to his character’s downfall, but rather the jumble of events by which it is precipitated. Though the event itself makes for inspired reading in venues such as the news or a fact-based doc, perhaps there is not enough substantial material (or maybe too much) to make a fully compelling fictionalized account.
Though ultimately less than the sum of its parts, Casino Jack is timely, passionately constructed and true to its source events. Abramoff is successfully made into the three-dimensional character that those close to him likely knew, and that the media was never able to (or more likely never wanted to) capture. Spacey is without a doubt a large part of this indelibly fiery characterization and strangely (obviously for reasons we will never know) seems more invested in this character than he has in any during the last ten years. Casino Jack’s follies are all the more disappointingly glaring considering how strong the hard-hitting portions were, and though better than the average fact-based account, good enough is never good enough when greatness seems to be within reach.Rating: 6/10Casino JackDirected by George HickenlooperWritten by Norman SniderStarring: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz
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