Movie Review: Casino Jack ***

Kevin Spacey's one man show as lobbyist Jack Abramoff makes Casino Jack a vivid if depressing leap into pay-to-play politics and governance in the United States. Spacey earned a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination for the role.

Spacey's megalomaniac Abramoff is so larger than life that every character around him fades, save for Barry Pepper as his sidekick Michael Scanlon. Even their partners (Kelly Preston as Jack's conscience-ridden wife and Rachelle Lefevre as Scanlon's revenge-driven fiancee) seem little more than greedy hangers-on. Who could blame them?

The perks and woes of wealth are many for Abramoff and Scanlon. Jack buys a new school for his kids (he's dissatisfied with the quality of their private schools). He splurges on mansions, private jets, and a political junket to the Marianas even as his home mortgage payments go delinquent. To support their lifestyles, the pair begin to bend laws and ethical guidelines, charging exorbitant fees to their Indian casino clients.

The structure of the film reflects Abramoff's world view. He's the star, surrounded by a society of mediocre drones who work 40 hours a week and just scrape by. Not him. He's a smart visionary whose job is to influence politicians. "I will not allow my family to be slaves!" he shouts at the mirror during his daily pep talk.

Despite a plot that gets bogged down in complex dealings, Spacey soars as a superlobbyist who thinks he's a vital cog in Washington's machinery. Lobbyists research, inform and guide elected officials, he says. They make sure pols vote "correctly" (according to the wishes of mega-bucks corporations and conglomerates).

When Abramoff opens the only kosher restaurant in D.C., it seems more a ruse to hook new clients and get his picture on the front page of the business section rather than a reflection of goodwill. Jack does have a few redeeming virtues. He's a family man (for brief snatches of time) and an observant Jew. He loves movies. Spacey delivers dead-on impersonations of Ronald Reagan and Al Pacino.

Abramoff's grilling before John McCain's Indian Affairs Committee becomes a montage of factual retelling and the scene that could have been. Senators behind the microphones are cast as compromised buffoons who wheedle on the same level as the man they're scapegoating. Several members of the House (including Tom DeLay) were convicted in the wake of the investigations.

When Scanlon sells him out for a lighter sentence, Abramoff tells his partner in sleaze he'll miss him over a final game of racquet. It's predictable that prisoner Abramoff expounds on political affairs, typing frenzied letters to U.S. presidents. He lectures fellow inmates on the Torah as illustrated in movie themes.

Jon Lovitz delivers a comedic take on Abramoff's frontman Adam Kidan afloat on a rollicking casino ship. Graham Greene plays a determined Saginaw Chippewa tribal council leader.

Director George Hickenlooper died several months after Casino Jack's filming. Abramoff recently completed his four year sentence for fraud, corruption and conspiracy.

Casino Jack 2010 / R / 1 hour, 48 min

Cast Overview: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz, Graham Greene, Rachelle Lefevre, Kelly Preston, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, John Robinson, Spencer Garrett, Jeffrey R. Smith, Christian Campbell

Director: George Hickenlooper

Genres: Biopic, Docudrama, Drama