Dec 19, 2010

Casino Jack

Kevin Spacey is always a lot of fun to watch, but I don't think he was the right actor to play Jewish disgrace Jack Abramoff in this tonally confused movie. For one, he's doing his fabulous Kevin Spacey shtick all over again, and while it is good, nasty fun, one never feels that you are watching a character -- it's all Spacey, all the time. Still, few actors are as good as conveying snaky ruthlessness as he is, an actor of almost mathematical precision.  At first, I thought he did not convince me as a Jew, and not because Jews need to look Jewy (a broad stereotype I hate), but because he's just too cold a fish. Then I saw a picture of the real Abramoff, and he is handsome in a very waspy way, which goes to show that stereotypes are for shit. In terms of physical resemblance, Bill Pullman would have been closest, but he's not half as interesting. I also thought Hank Azaria, because I love him and it pains me he is underutilized. I don't believe that actors need to look exactly like the people they play, but Spacey is way off the mark both physically and I suspect in terms of temperament. One thing he doesn't get is what I venture to guess was Abramoff's ability to justify his shenanigans by truly believing that by giving to charities and building religious schools he was both doing the right thing and would be divinely absolved in case God was watching. The material is in the script, but Spacey simply does not convey piety convincingly, and so there is something off kilter at the center of the character. Dramatically, it would be more interesting and human to show that his belief was heartfelt and authentic, all the more reason to offer a jarring ethical disconnect as he embezzled millions from Indian tribes.
What is also way off is the tone of the movie. At its core lies a very interesting story that sheds light on how our government really works: by entrenched, institutionalized corruption in the form of lobbyists for special interests. The movie attempts to be a satire (otherwise why hire Spacey?), but the direction is unsure and heavy handed and things are not helped by a zippy and annoying soundtrack that tries to add levity to scenes that don't need more of it. The music works against the spirit of the movie. I kept trying to imagine the same scenes without that score, or with a different one. It would have worked better if director George Hickenlooper (who died at the age of 47 right before the opening of the movie) let it be a dark, little fable about Washington corruption, but you can't be bitter and sunny at the same time.
The cast does not seem to jell at all. Spacey is actually funny in the same super dry, disturbing way he was in Swimming with Sharks. There is plenty of comic relief in the shape of Jon Lovitz, playing another sleazebag, but he is too broad a character, whereas Spacey seems to be acting in a different movie altogether. And Barry Pepper (the American Klaus Kinski) is reaching for the cheap seats as if Spacey were not standing two inches away from him. The result is that the movie feels leaden and belabored. The best thing in the film is the amazing Maury Chaykin playing an old Italian mafioso for no more than 5 minutes (I was sad to learn he passed away this year. He better be in the Oscar obit section or I'm gonna be pissed). Chaykin just rips through his two scenes with such generous gusto, with such quirky comic timing and charisma that he blows everyone away. In contrast, Kelly Preston as Abramoff's wife is wildly uneven; good in some scenes and amateurish in others, the minor character actors are ciphers. It's a bit of a mess.
The movie should elicit more outrage at the corrupt insittution of lobbyism, and the congresspeople who eat from their hands, but it is too busy not knowing how it wants to be, to be effective.

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