In the early nineties Kevin Spacey rose to prominence in Hollywood. He did so by playing some notable villains, and did a nice line in slimy businessmen. Once he became popular, of course, they made him into a good guy, and he was never quite the same again. Now, however, he has returned to his forte, this time as a slimy lobbyist in George Hickenlooper’s political satire, Casino Jack.
Spacey plays real life political lobbyist Jack Abramoff. With ambitions of being a successful businessman, Abramoff finds himself seduced by the lure of easy money when an opportunity comes his way. He facilitates a new casino built on a Native American reserve, clearing a path through red tape and competition in return for huge commissions. Thanks to Abramoff’s increasing greed and dishonesty, however, his simple plan inevitably starts to crumble as his dodgy dealings begin to catch up with him.
Casino Jack deals with real people, and a true life scandal. It does not come across as a hard hitting drama, though. Spacey plays Abramoff sympathetically, as an ambitious man who succumbs to temptation, never seeming to fully grasp that his actions are wrong. It all seems so easy, and as far as he’s concerned, no-one is getting hurt. Spacey’s Abramoff is a movie lover, quoting movie lines, much to his family’s chagrin, and comes across as very much a doofus somewhat out of touch with reality.
So it’s a comedy then? Well, no, not really. It is all played very light, with no heavy morality messages thrust upon the audience, but there are no jokes. The film is a satire, and has all the hallmarks as such, but by not choosing to follow the path of either drama or comedy, it finds itself a little lost, tonally. There’s no great excitement, no blistering scenes, and no snappy dialogue.
Spacey, as (almost) always, is great in the role. It’s the kind of character he can play in his sleep, but he puts his weight behind it, and almost recaptures those glory days of the early nineties. His back-up cast, however, are instantly forgettable. Serviceable performances, with no real stand-outs. This leaves the film with a real lack of energy. What Spacey needs in a movie like this is a sparring partner. When he does get one, in the shape of the energetic Jon Lovitz, you can see how Casino Jack could have been a good movie. With a more electric cast, and a bit more urgency in the storytelling, it could have sparkled. Unfortunately, Lovitz only appears in a few short scenes.
Casino Jack is not badly made. The script is serviceable, with a few great one-liners tailor made for Spacey. The story is intriguing and easy to follow, despite the political wrangling involved. It is not a bad film. It is just a bit, well, dull. Even as his world starts to close in around Abramoff, the pace retains the same trot, when the director should really be tightening the screw.
Considering the boldness shown in making a movie about real people committing real crimes, it seems strange that such boldness did not carry through into the filmmaking style. It feels almost as though once the, presumably controversial, script got the green light, someone lost their nerve – choosing to take a fairly neutral stance on what, for all intents and purposes, seems like a clear cut case of criminality and corruption.