Casino Jack - Blu-ray Review

'Hickenlooper nails tone about as successfully as Abramoff nails being penitent'

Casino Jack starts with Kevin Spacey, as lobbyist Jack Abramoff, giving a speech to a mirror. He starts slow, collected; this is normal, this is what men who make important speeches do. But as he moves through the motions, he begins to abandon the pretence; hair now flapping, finger jabbing into his own image, Spacey is a wild goat with a new-found mastery of four-letter words. Come the end of the scene, director George Hickenlooper has us wondering how we were meant to take that little bout of mirror abuse. Was it serious? An authentic presentation of a damaged man in an influential position? Or was it comedy? Were we meant to be laughing at Abramoff's ill-styled hair and ebullient self-aggrandisement?

This question remains throughout in what is one of the least successful films in recent times at establishing a tone and then sticking with it. Like a drunk in a gambling establishment with too much money to spend, Casino Jack is all over the place. An early altercation between one of Abramoff's staff and a journalist plays like comedy. When the journalist is back later, trying to spear Jack, it's serious drama. When the journalist then appears on-screen with over-done, grotesque black eye and bandage, we're back in comedy.

Most moments with Spacey: serious. Any scene with Jon Lovitz, who has made a career from playing schlubbs: comedy. From very early on it is very apparent that something is broken here. What's not immediately clear is if it's the casting or the writing.

The answer, almost inevitably, might be 'both'. Lovitz shouldn't be here if this was meant to be serious but towards the end, as he is literally shown running away from FBI agents? No actor, no matter how seriously inclined, could pull that off without producing audience chortles.

On the serious side of things though, it's not like Casino Jack perfectly nails its targets either. Abramoff comes off as yeah, a kind of not nice guy, who you can imagine brought his moral compass from a man with horns at a crossroads at midnight, but you don't hate him, or compatriot Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper) by the end, nor do you get anything but the nuts and bolts of what exactly they were involved in. There's some suggestion somewhere that, actually, all lobbyists are really nice guys, it was just Abramoff who was bad, and certainly no meaningful attempt to examine the industry as a whole. Surely vital, in the context of this story. The friend/foe dynamic between Jack and Mike progresses without much of note, before the director resorts to that most clich├ęd of attempts to show just how competitive and successful these guys are: put them into a squash court together and have them sweat a lot. Several times.

Hickenlooper nails tone about as successfully as Abramoff nails being penitent and, because of that, Casino Jack is not without fun but is largely without merit. It is a huge gamble to attempt to produce a successful film which both encourages you to laugh at the subject and which rightly spears said subject's heinous wrongdoings. Hickenlooper here rolls the dice and loses.



2 comments:

  1. I thought it was an entertaining movie and didn't mind the mix of seriousness with comedy. If I remember correctly Spacey's character is a movie fan as well and he impersonates another actor right?

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    1. In the mirror scene? Yes, you might be right there - he does impersonate actors throughout, something Abramoff apparently did (he produced Red Scorpion, the poster is always in the background).

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