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Casino Jack

Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper in "Casino Jack"

It’s not hard to see why Kevin Spacey wanted to star in a movie about the notorious Washington lobbyist, dealmaker, and felon Jack Abramoff. Over about a decade, chiefly during the George W. Bush administration, Abramoff became an avatar of outsize greed and outrageous self dealing. He operated in a public-private, mutual benefit alliance of lobbyists, private business interests, and public office holders. Abramoff’s tentacles of access and influence reached into the Bush White House, the president’s eventual claim to be unfamiliar with his operation notwithstanding.

Abramoff’s grandiose moxie and audacious double-dealing render him a potentially compelling subject for dramatic treatment. This is a guy, after all, who early in his checkered career produced a tediously pedantic action film, Red Scorpion starring Dolph Lundgren, and continued to consider himself an astute student of the cinema (he offered advice to the filmmakers when they visited him in jail). And then there was his ostensible devotion to his Orthodox Jewish faith, which he claimed as a sanction for his political and financial maneuvers. In sum, quite a package.

But Spacey, as Abramoff, and director George Hickenlooper (he died at age 46 before the film was released) never really succeed in finding a consistent or involving way to present this transgressive character who, for a while, exemplified a kind of American success. Through much of the movie they seem to be assuming a wryly distanced posture. But when they bring in Jon Lovitz as a small-time swindler whom Abramoff involved in the purchase of a shady Florida gambling operation, the proceedings acquire a farcical tone, and Spacey and Lovitz’s performances fail to mesh adequately.

There are a couple of brief, sharp scenes, in particular one in which a very worried Abramoff pays a desperate visit to his sponsor and collaborator, House Republican Majority Leader Tom Delay, and the very observant Jew has to sit through the sanctimonious politico’s Christian prayer interlude.

But mostly, Casino Jack just assembles dramatized episodes from the Abramoff story without providing enough insight or entertainment. Anyone interested in what happened would be better served by viewing Alex Gibney’s 2010 documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

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Watch the trailer for Casino Jack

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