Playing games

Puzzling satirical approach hamstrings Jack Abramoff biopic

Casino Jack
Ends Thursday, Jan. 27.Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

The saga of Jack Abramoff—big-time lobbyist, scam artist, self-promoter, convicted thief—seems a juicy topic for a muckraking, take-no-prisoners kind of movie. And Kevin Spacey is a great choice for the title role.

Consequently, the fitfully sputtering satire of the resulting film comes as something of a puzzling surprise. The muckraking is there, and screenwriter Norman Snider has laid out the wildly contradictory details of Abramoff’s personal character—the delusional piety and flamboyance, the thinly veiled mixture of arrogant ambition and cynical idealism. But the late George Hickenlooper stages this man’s bizarre and scabrous story as an almost picaresque adventure, with Spacey’s Abramoff portrayed as a sometimes-charming rogue, an all-American wheeler-dealer brought down less by corruption in high places than by the sleazy lowlifes with whom he collaborates.

The low farce in all this comes across in rather hit-and-miss form in Hickenlooper’s film, and the satirical ferocity that really ought to be there goes largely missing. Spacey does well enough with the antic chameleonism of Abramoff’s personality, but comes up mostly empty with the guy’s deeper contradictions.

There are brief, bland impersonations of Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, and other historically relevant figures here. But the political rogues’ gallery devised by Hickenlooper and Snider comes stingingly to life only intermittently—in the mafia schlubs played by Jon Lovitz and Maury Chaykin, in the exultantly slimy cohort Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), and in a couple of Spacey/Abramoff’s shamelessly self-deluding monologues.