Kevin Spacey was one of Hollywood's greatest leading men during the 1990s. He won Academy Awards for The Usual Suspects (1995) and American Beauty (1999) and played a leading role in one of my favourite films of the decade, L.A. Confidential (1997). It all seemed to go downhill for him after 2000's Pay It Forward and he has really faded from the public consciousness. This year he returns with Casino Jack, a film based on the real life corruption scandal involving Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Spacey was recently awarded a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, though the category is one of the weakest in recent memory. Kevin Spacey has made a career playing shady and unlikeable characters and, while Jack Abramoff is no exception, he brings a natural charisma to the role. It is this charm that made Lester Burnham such a memorable character and won Spacey the Oscar. Unfortunately for Spacey, and for Casino Jack, the film has little else to offer. The other characters are very one-dimensional and director George Hickenlooper does not give his characters very much to do. Kelly Preston, Rachelle Lefevre and Barry Pepper are underused in pivotal roles. Casino Jack turns a fascinating political scandal into a pedestrian and unprovocative film which cannot be saved by a better-than-average performance from Kevin Spacey.
In 2006 Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was convicted of defrauding American Indian tribes and involved with the corruption of public officials, which included Speaker of the House Tom Delay (Spencer Garrett). Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) conspired to extort tens of millions of dollars out of an American Indian tribe by telling the tribal leader (Graham Greene) that their money would guarantee that the right people in Washington D.C. would support their interests. Abramoff was using the millions he was stealing to invest in a boat cruise casino outfit in Florida. He felt that it was in his best interests to have a proxy act in his stead at the casino and hired an acquaintance to act in his stead. This man, Adam Kidan (Lovitz), became a major liability. In Washington, the Wall Street Journal was investigating many of Abramoff's corrupt dealing, lead by reporter Susan Schmidt (Ruth Marshall). Abramoff kept his wife Pam (Preston) out of the loop, but it was the womanizing Scanlon, whose girlfriend Emily (Lefevre) eventually put their whole plan in jeopardy.
Considering that American history is rife with political scandal, it is unfortunate that such a modern and complex story like Casino Jack was handled so clumsily. Casino Jack at various times, and often at once, wants to be a drama, a comedy and a political satire. The story is far too comical to be played straight, but the scenes involving Abramoff with his family are very stale. Kelly Preston, whose work as an actress has become infrequent at best, is given little to do in a horribly one-dimensional role. Even Barry Pepper, whose character is fundamental to the story, comes across as incompetent. Casino Jack, in terms of performance and character, rests entirely on Kevin Spacey. So much has gone into the screenplay and the film to make Jack Abramoff a likable character that all other characters have been reduced to stereotypes. Ultimately, Casino Jack struggles because it wants to be a true story while also being a parody. Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable for a film to be enjoyable, but Casino Jack is also unavoidably forgettable.
My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.