Blu-Ray Review: ‘Casino Jack’ Falls Short of the Jackpot

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CHICAGO – While Alex Gibney’s enraging 2010 documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” brought cinematic immortality to the life of recently imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff, George Hickenlooper’s narrative re-telling transforms the cinema-obsessed criminal into the larger-than-life movie hero of his dreams. I have a sneaking suspicion that Abramoff may love this picture.

Consider the memorable pre-title sequence. Abramoff brushes his teeth in the mirror of a public bathroom, while harboring a stare to rival that of Jake La Motta. It’s not long before he launches into an impassioned and defensive monologue, justifying his outrageous actions while voicing his contempt for the majority of humanity, resigned to living honest yet “mediocre” lives. Like him or not, he is who he is, though the levels of self-deception fueling his self-righteousness are dizzying to say the least. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0

Since Abramoff’s words are practically indiscernible from those of Scorsese’s mobsters in “GoodFellas,” it’s tempting to wonder what an A-list director may have been able to do with the same material. Hickenlooper was best known for his documentary work, particularly his 1991 masterwork, “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” and was never able to equal his success elsewhere. Yet “Jack” is just skillful enough to function as a worthy end coda to the career of Hickenlooper, who died two days after the film’s October premiere at the Austin Film Festival. It’s an entertaining yet inessential lark, since Gibney’s film did a vastly superior job of exploring the material. The main attraction here is Kevin Spacey’s gleeful eagerness to sink his teeth into such a slimeball, and his slippery charisma in the title role is rather infectious. Abramoff always considered himself to be one of the “good guys,” though Spacey makes sure to include moments in which the mega-lobbyist appears to be questioning his methods. He’s determined to not let his family down, though he doesn’t seem to be all that perturbed about defrauding casino owners out of millions, or allowing Chinese sweatshop laborers to work as indentured servants.

Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper star in George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack.
Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper star in George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack.
Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

The script by Norman Snider (“Dead Ringers”) has many amusing one-liners, such as when Abramoff’s skeptical wife Pam (a very strong Kelly Preston) observes that his newly hired owner of SunCruz Casinos, Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz at his most unseemly), looks like “a defendant on Judge Judy.” Other lines are so ridiculous that they could only be taken from real life, such as Abramoff’s profession that he converted to Judaism after watching “Fiddler on the Roof” (“If I Were a Rich Man” was undoubtedly his favorite tune). Yet Abramoff is never funnier (or more appalling) than when we argues that he’s just interested in “doing important stuff that matters to people.” He couldn’t care less about the lives of the suckers he dupes. They’re all viewed as mere obstacles blocking his path to the next fortune. The character’s inherently sociopathic nature could’ve inspired Oscar-caliber work from Spacey, but the actor mainly takes this as an opportunity to gobble up the scenery (his work in HBO’s “Recount” was far more rich in nuance and subtlety).

Casino Jack was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on April 5, 2011.
Casino Jack was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on April 5, 2011.
Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Some of the film’s best moments involve Abramoff’s close relationship with his partner-in-crime Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), which occasionally resembles that of a married couple. There’s also a potent moment when a wronged casino owner’s shrieks of injustice fall on the deaf ears of Abramoff, unwilling to hear the problems of lesser beings. Though Spacey’s performance is mightily enjoyable, his character is so profoundly hatable that he risks losing the audience altogether, particularly at a time when governmental corruption appears to be as unending as our multiple wars. Yet I’m still convinced that Abramoff could watch this picture and leave it convinced that he was depicted as the hero. In an all-too-brief fantasy sequence during his fateful trial, Abramoff tells every person in the room precisely why their actions are hypocritical, since they’ve all benefited from Washington’s preferred brand of legalized bribery. Abramoff was correct in his assessment that he was being cast as the fall guy. But that technicality doesn’t make him any less guilty. Like Blagojevich, he was simply the unfortunate member of the class who got his hand caught in the cookie jar.
“Casino Jack” is presented in impeccable 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), and accompanied by a few forgettable yet diverting extras. An extensive “Director’s Video Diary” includes amusing anecdotes from the late filmmaker, who quotes John Ford’s philosophy that atmosphere should be as much of a main character as your lead. Nine minutes of deleted scenes mainly consist of added beats, including a priceless moment after Spacey’s fiery bathroom monologue in which he asks, “Is anybody in here?” Unfortunately, the 8-minute blooper reel is botched by sloppy editing, though it does manage to capture Spacey’s spot-on impression of Buddy Hackett.

‘‘Casino Jack’ is released by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and stars Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz, Kelly Preston, Rachelle Lafevre and Graham Green. It was written by Norman Snider and directed by George Hickenlooper. It was released on April 5, 2011. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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