Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 10, 2010 9:23 pm 
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An American political sleaze-fest turned into drama

Jack Abramoff, "Casino Jack," was the ├╝ber-lobbyist who made payoffs to much of Congress, and then got caught for defrauding Indian casinos (and a Greek one) of millions and served three and half years in jail. A conservative Republican and an orthodox Jew, Abramoff exemplifies the sleazy, celebrity-crazed, self-deluded side of Washington and American ways-justify-means megalomania at its most blind and foolish. He started restaurants and a Jewish prep schiool, flew around in a private jet, scheming with his cohorts Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, hiding his profits through his partner Mike Scanlon and compulsively dorpping the names of big shots he knew.

George Hickenlooper, who made Hearts of Darkness, about the troubled gestation of Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now, has attempted a dramatic feature about the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff that provides a marathon showcase for Kevin Spacey's inexhaustible thespian energy. Spacey is good at playing snide, smart, and underhanded, but not all of that can come into play here. This isn't a subtle part and as Abramoff he has to do a little too much yelling. The story of this distasteful man doesn't bring out the best in filmmakers. Six months ago the talented Alex Gibney, whose films about Enron (2005), Afghanistan (2007) and Hunter Thompson (2008) are coruscating, passionate, and enlightening, brought out a film about Abramoff called Casino Jack and the United States of Money that felt surprisingly rushed and careless. Not only is Abramoff's story, told straight, poor drama. It barely seems worth telling. It's a footnote to a larger story of the selling of American politics. Hickenlooper's dramatization of the Abramoff story lacks dramatic coherence. Like All Good Things, the more stylish recent effort by documentarian Andrew Jarecki to turn the strange life of the real estate heir Robert Durst into a drama, Casino Jack fails to find a rhythm or to provide dramatic coherence.

Spacey's Abramoff doesn't find a rhythm either. He keeps saying he works out every day. He bullies and humiliates people, and he's clueless, doing tiresome lines out of famous movies, a habit picked up by his sycophant sidekick, Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper) does the movie imitations too, which finally fall very flat when he proposes buying the SunCruz floating casinos from their Greek owner, who doesn't go to the movies. It's not clear if Abramoff actually charms people, or just scares, bullies, and impresses his Indian casino bosses into thinking he can protect them fro competition when he is playing one of them against the other. He's not a person; he's a scam. Spacey does a lot of brief spot-on impersonations of famous voices. But what's the voice of his character?

The are many characters as the Abramoff story is ground out, most of them, like Spencer Garrett's version of disgraced former House majority leader Tom DeLay or the late Maury Chaykin's aging mafioso, are standard issue. Spacey has nobody to play off. Mike Scanlon is just a yes-man who uses cloying slang like "Dude." Jack is rarely with his wife Pam (Kelly Preston), who simply goes from concerned to worried to frantic. Spacey is monologuing and the film opens tellingly with a soliloquy into a men's room mirror. It never resonates later.

It's hard to say what's most defective here, the flashy, kitsch look, the spotty editing, the directionless writing by third-string scenarist Norman Snyder. Casino Jack isn't exactly a disaster because it moves fast and if you're fascinated by sordid bling you may find its story fun to watch. But it's not only not a good movie, but barely a movie at all. It's a documentary that's acted out, a miniseries, shoved together, thankfully, into a breathless 108 minutes instead of Gibney's two-hour mashup.

The themes of crime, overreaching, and downfall makes one long for the grandiosity of Pacino in De Palma's Carlito's Way. We need a scene when Abramoff looks down on a pile of money or a mound of coke and the silence surrounds him with ominous portents of downfall; or when like the scam artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, the giddy excitement grows so intense it becomes thrilling and scary. But there is never a eal clilmax and never a real pause either, never a moment of realization or even real drama, just the endless frantic dealing with sleazebags from a mattress salesman up to the Oval Office. The story isn't complete either. it focuses on Abramoff's ventures that led to his prosecution, his fleecing of casino owners. At the congressional hearing that leads to his downfall, he gets ready to point to the many congressmen who've taken his bribes, but that humiliating process we do not get to witness in sufficient detail. The movie is brave with scams on Native Americans, but shy of showing the dishonor of American politics.

When you make a movie that opens with "Inspired by real events," you should create a rich fiction with its own cinematic motifs and a varied structure, the way Paul Thomas Anderson flew with the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil! in Let There Be Blood. But Hickenlooper and Snyder have no cinematic inspiration. For all its busy, varied scenes, its recreation of actual moments (like Abamoff's introduction of DeLay to the College Republican National Committee) and its invention of dialogue among plotters and intimates, this is just a series of tableaux. But people still ought to watch it to learn the depths of profiteering that has invaded American government.

Casino Jack opens in US theaters December 17, 2010.

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