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Movie Review

Casino Jack

Skimming the surface of murky D.C. dealings

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 7, 2011

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"Casino Jack’’ is glib, fast-paced entertainment that barely leaves a mark — which, given the subject, is just plain wrong.

That subject is Jack Abramoff, the right-wing Washington lobbyist who imploded in the mid-2000s, choking on his own greed and taking a decent chunk of D.C. with him: one US representative, two White House officials, nine congressional aides and other lobbyists. The Abramoff story is a marvel of pure gimme-gimme sleaze, with the lobbyist and his partner, Michael Scanlon, running sweatshops in the Mariana Islands while bilking countless Indian tribes with multimillion-dollar “consulting fees’’ so Abramoff could invest in offshore gambling boats and set up a Hebrew school for his kids — all while buying politicians, peddling influence, and gaming the legislative process for everything it was worth.

It’s an exuberantly shameless tale, and one best told in Alex Gibney’s terrific 2010 documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,’’ a film that lays out every crime of hubris and mendacity in detail. Actually, you might want to use that film to bone up before heading into this off-Hollywood version, starring Kevin Spacey as Abramoff and directed by George Hickenlooper, the quixotic director (“Factory Girl,’’ “Hearts of Darkness’’) who died unexpectedly this past October at 47.

Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack’’ skips merrily across the surface of the story. It’s less interested in the specific wrongs Abramoff committed than in the mindset of the man himself: entitled, manic, demanding. The opening scene is a stunner: Spacey’s Jack brushing his teeth in the bathroom mirror and pep-talking himself into a lather of can-do testosterone, a profanity-studded tirade of post-Reagan social Darwinism that ends with “I’m Jack Abramoff and I work out every day.’’

It’s a pleasant downhill slope from there. “Casino Jack’’ moves through its antihero’s business at the speed he himself did, so if you’re not up on the details, you’ll fall off the truck quickly. Even so, there’s fun to be had in watching Jack and Scanlon (Barry Pepper) hoodoo marks like Graham Greene and Eric Schweig as Chippewa Nation leaders or Daniel Kash as a thuggish Greek businessman. In Abramoff’s corner are well-connected pals — small men with beady eyes and names like Ralph Reed (Christian Campbell), Grover Norquist (Jeffrey R. Smith), and Karl Rove (David Fraser) — and elected representatives like Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett) and Bob Ney (Jeff Pustil), men with power and an unceasing thirst for more.

The point is — sort of — that Casino Jack hardly worked alone, and in the movie’s climax, a righteous Senate hearing fantasia of what Abramoff could have said instead of taking the Fifth, fingers are pointed where they should have been. Until then, Hickenlooper gives us slick Capitol Hill farce that’s not nearly angry enough. In a way, who can blame him when he’s got actors like Pepper — who gives an explosively whiny comic performance — and the great Jon Lovitz, unforgettable as the slimy patsy Abramoff enlists to run the casino ships.

The subtext of “Casino Jack’’ is that this — all-American greed revving straight into the red — is what happened to the Reagan faithful when the fall of Communism took away their ideological center. Hickenlooper follows the trail of buddy-buddy corruption up to the doors of the Bush White House but stops short; he and screenwriter Norman Snider aren’t compiling a brief but selling us a sordid little comedy about why our government is broken.

They’re going for laughs even when the laughs catch in our throats, and Spacey, giving another perfectly fine performance as Kevin Spacey, is not quite right for his role. He’s a natural star, assured and graceful, where Abramoff just desperately wanted to be a star. That’s why Gibney’s documentary will outlast this blithe diversion. No one played Jack better than he did.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

CASINO JACK

Directed by: George Hickenlooper

Written by: Norman Snider

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz, Graham Greene, Kelly Preston

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R (pervasive language, some violence, brief nudity)

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