Tuesday, December 14, 2010

George Hickenlooper's final film opens -- CASINO JACK, with a smart Kevin Spacey

Comparisons may be odious but they're unavoidable here, as two films on the same subject -- lobbyist and loose cannon Jack Abramoff -- have opened theatrically within seven months of each other.  The first was a little-seen but often brilliant documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money by Alex Gibney, the prolific documentarian who, within the past five years, has also given us the Enron doc, the Oscar-wining Taxi to the Dark Side, Freakonomics and the Elliot Spitzer doc Client 9. In just under two hours, Gibney manages to provide a fuller picture of Abramoff, the man and his history, in even more interesting, followable fashion, than does the narrative version that opens this week under the more marquee-friendly title of simply CASINO JACK.

Written and co-produced by Norman Snider, the newer Abramoff movie was directed by George Hickenlooper (shown at right) -- his last, as this director suffered an untimely death (at age 47) less than two months ago. TrustMovies has grown fond of Hickenlooper's sometimes rather loopy work (The Big Brass Ring, The Man from Elysian Fields, and especially his own documentary The Mayor of Sunset Strip) over the years, and so was hoping that this film might be a sweet apotheosis for the departed filmmaker. Instead, like his most recent Factory Girl, it's a film that has some good things (especially some good performances) in it but that otherwise just sits there, as the boat leaves the dock.

For some, particularly those who have not seen Gibney's documentary (which you can currently stream via Netflix), Kevin Spacey (above, center) will be enough to make the movie a must-see. Here is another of the actor's all-stops-out performances. And since, by all accounts, Mr. Abramoff was an all-stops-out kind of guy, this is an actor/character/role match made in movie heaven. From the first moment -- a monologue addressed to a bathroom mirror -- to a scene of Jack non-testifying (and then, in a bit of wish-fulfillment, letting it all rip) before a congressional committee, Spacey chews the scenery with such appropriate aplomb and gusto that you sit there shaking your head in wonder.  Likewise, when the house of cards starts to tumble, the actor captures, with surprising subtlety and sadness the hurt and anger that his "betrayal" has brought about.

Spacey's supporting cast is not bad, either, from Barry Pepper (above, left) as Jack's right-hand-man Michael Scanlon to Kelly Preston as his long-suffering, supportive wife (at left).  Christian Campbell makes a delightfully snarky (and so on-the-money, looks-wise) Ralph Reed, while Graham Greene proves a fine, upright and sensible Indian against Eric Schweig's damn-the-torpedoes Chef Poncho. And Rachelle Lefevre, as Scanlon's snookered girl-friend registers strongly, just as she does in the recent Barney's Version.

Other than Spacey, the performance that comes closest to stealing the movie comes from Jon Lovitz as the ultra sleazy, and not-a little-stupid Adam Kidan, and there's more fine work -- his penultimate film -- from the recently departed Maury Chaykin.  You certainly won't fault the acting in Casino Jack.  The real problem stems from the fact that the filmmakers begin almost at the point of Abramoff's slide from power. Consequently, we never see or understand why and how the man rose to such power in the first place. This is something of which Gibney's documentary is chock full. There's little history from Hickenlooper. When, toward the finale, Abramoff meets with some Hollywood people, we'd never know from this movie that Jack had a whole past in tinsel-town.

The other big problem is that, when your movie roars over-the-top early on, as this one does, where do you go from there? Other than a few fantasy moments during which Abramoff "tells it like it is," the film is content to turn him into a betrayed anti-hero, though it does end on a nice note of possible upcoming extortion, though whether or not there's any basis of truth to this, time will tell.

Meanwhile, Casino Jack, distributed by ATO Pictures (Art Takes Over: if only!), the welcome spin-off from the Dave Matthews Band, will open this Friday, December 17 at a single theater in New York and six in California.  Click here to see theaters, cities and dates.

No comments: