The world of D.C. lobbyists is filled with slick, fast-talking, callous, sleaze bags getting into high-stakes sexy action while exchanging money and extravagant gifts for political favors… well, according to Hollywood anyway. Most of the time, it seems like they’d fit in better with Ari Gold on Entourage than they do on Capitol Hill. It’s no surprise, then, that Casino Jack shows infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff as a wannabe movie producer whose skills in the art of bullshit let him pull strings all the way up to the White House.
Kevin Spacey stars as Abramoff, a somewhat likeable character despite his shady dealings. We see him as he rips off Indian tribes, invests in a floating casino and finds himself in the middle of a giant scandal that exposes his less-than-ethical methods. Still, his constant need to burst into celebrity impressions and his big aspirations make him oddly relatable. His partner in crime is Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) who seems even sleazier with is slicked back hair and constant infidelity. Then we throw in Adam Kidan (an excellent Jon Lovitz) a mattress entrepreneur who joins Abramoff in the purchase of SunSail casinos (renamed from the original SunCruz casinos) and orders a mob hit on its former owner Gus Boulis (Daniel Kash). Of course, things catch up with Abramoff & co. and, by the end, Jack finds himself facing a congressional hearing and lengthy jail sentence.
Spacey is always great and Jack is no different. He has the friendly appearance and personable demeanor to make him likeable, and more importantly trustworthy, so we believe that he can convince people to do anything. When we see him break into a Dolph Lundgren or Bill Clinton impression while conning his clients, we’re amused by the silliness and amazed at the callousness of it all.
While Lovitz’s character might be exaggerated and less believable, his unique style of speech and ability to play a humorous, unsavory character make him a nice addition. There’s just something about him that perfectly lends itself to mob connections, gold chains, strippers and coke, even if those qualities are blown up to near-cartoon levels here.
Still, good performances can’t always help the pacing of the movie. It starts out slow and only gets really good in the last half hour or so. It feels like there’s too much set up and not enough pay off. If you don’t know the ins and outs of the real scandal, it can be hard to follow this fictionalized version. Unlike Thank You For Smoking, which follows a fictional lobbyist even more charming and manipulative than Abramoff, Casino Jack doesn’t seem to roll out the problem until a good deal into the film. We want to see the rise and fall of this controversial guy, but it sort of jumps in at the middle and then speeds to the finish line. Abramoff is an interesting character and it would have been nice to watch him come unglued as his world crashes down.
In the same way that a lot of actors wish they were pro-athletes, it seems that a lot of screenwriters wish they were lobbyists, the kind of people who could sell any idea to any client and influence the government to its highest level. There’s really not much of a difference between fast-talking agents and fast-talking lobbyists… except that one can alter the careers of movie stars and the other can pull the strings for some of the most powerful people in the world.