Casino Jack isn’t a perfect film, or even the best of its kind. That said, it’s a definite should-see. The film follows a long tradition of scathing dramas and black comedies that have pulled apart America’s flawed institutions, from TV in sadly deceased Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece, Network, to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, that ironically became the film to launch a thousand stock brokers. These issue-driven films don’t always have the filmmaker’s desired effect, but damn do they tell a good story. In Casino Jack’s case, the story is too implausible to believe…except that it’s real.
With a couple Dolph Lundgren films under his belt, producer Jack Abramoff left Hollywood and became Washington, D.C.’s super lobbyist. Kevin Spacey smoothly jumps into Jack’s shoes near the peak of his rise during the Bush years; opening restaurants, landing the big clients, and living life in the fast lane that only someone who never flies except on a private plane for four can understand.
When Jack’s superficial partner (Barry Pepper) decides to hose the Chippewa Indians with fees to represent their new casino, Jack joins in on a disastrous spiral downwards. Cheating the Native Americans, the greatest victims in our nation’s history, out of millions, the two are quick to bring in a slimy mattress king (Jon Lovitz) to help buy a chain of Greek cruise line casinos. From millions to murder, they end up breaking every rule in the book.
Spacey is flanked by an incredible ensemble, including: Spencer Garrett as the religious hypocrite Tom DeLay, Kelly Preston at her most attractive and convincing as Mrs. Abramoff, Graham Greene in a small but devastating role as one of the victimized Native Americans, and a side-splittingly hilarious Maury Chaykin as the man who brings the gun to the party. Barry Pepper, best known as the spiritual sniper in Saving Private Ryan, is at his sinewy best, playing a womanizer more interested in Du Pont Mansions than building schools.
Director George Hickenlooper, who passed away before the film was released, would undoubtedly have been sorry to see how quickly Casino Jack came and went. The box office was cold for his $15 million character study, most likely because people just aren’t interested in seeing movies about our current problems. Vietnam may have been huge for Hollywood, but Iraq has lead to one bomb after another. Trying to rope people into 108 minutes of the tangible greed that is ruining this country and our planet without the explosions is even harder.
The movie plays about ten to fifteen minutes too long, with a little too much fat in the middle. Spacey and Pepper’s song-and-dance dominates the screen and the audience understands pretty quickly that these two men are living the American Dream at everyone else’s expense. When they should have started their fall, however, there’s still a good ten minutes left of illegal prosperity.
At the heart of Casino Jack, as with Network, Wall Street, and every other film of this kind, is greed. Network execs want better numbers, Gordon Gecko wants more money, and Jack joins the club. Making an audience enjoy a story about a protagonist who has already joined the top 1% of Americans who control 50% of the wealth is a precarious balance. The humanity of the character has to equal their greed, and Casino Jack makes sure to devote considerable screen time to his wife and kids. When Spacey and Preston break down together, we see a glimmer of repentance that allows the closed door to their souls to reopen. We wonder if, for a moment, the end might be a salvation story.
This story is ongoing and with fantastic documentaries like Inside Job coming out, it’s obvious that none of the big fish responsible for the current financial crisis have been held accountable. While most of us feel alienated from these issues, it’s our country and the least we can do is give an evening to a superb film that shows us the wild ride on the other side.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
A photo diary from the director captures some great on-set moments, and a gag reel reminds that the movie is indeed a comedy, however black. Kevin Spacey is a screen icon and one of the greatest working actors today. Seeing him between takes and in his cut moments, you realize how “on” he is. It’s electric. The deleted scenes are forgettable. As with most pictures, they were cut for a reason and the movie was better for it.
"Casino Jack" is on sale October 28, 2010 and is rated R. Biopic. Directed by George Hickenlooper. Written by Norman Snider. Starring Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz, Kelly Preston, Kevin Spacey.