En español | The many pleasures of Kevin Spacey’s performance in Casino Jack — as disgraced D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff — begin with the film’s very first frames. He stands there staring into the mirror of some public men’s room, methodically brushing his teeth. A spit and a swallow later, he’s grimly addressing himself, and the viewer, and the world at large, raging against a planet addicted to mediocrity, a society that suffers from “the disease of the dull.” Spacey knows, and so does director George Hickenlooper, that any film character who talks to a mirror is inevitably going to conjure up the ghost of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (“You talking to me?”).
But here’s Spacey audaciously swimming up that cinematic stream, exposing from the start Jack’s almost operatic predilection for self-aggrandizement. In Jack Abramoff’s world, the pursuit of power and riches reflects not only his personal desires, but also a moral imperative. Every action Jack takes, no matter how outrageous, comes pre-rationalized. And Spacey, with his clench-jawed, jut-chinned, squint-eyed demeanor and that meticulously modulated voice, inhabits this guy in a full-bodied performance that is easily his best since his Oscar-winning turn in 1999’s American Beauty.
We meet Jack Abramoff in full flower, already one of Washington’s most influential lobbyists. He butters up his clients shamelessly to their faces, gladly accepts their exorbitant fees, and mercilessly ridicules them behind their backs. Jack is hopelessly mercenary, yet he has convinced himself that he is an essential cog in the wheels of democracy. In the film’s narrative, things begin to unravel rather quickly, but not before we get to meet the quirky, Runyonesque characters that surround him, most notably his weaselly protégé (Barry Pepper) and his sociopathic business partner (Jon Lovitz, breathing new life into his old Pathological Liar bit. Luckily, he’s got a faithful wife (the radiant Kelly Preston) who at least tries to keep Jack honest, but who realizes too late that her hubby has blithely strolled way too far down the path to perdition.
Director Hickenlooper (who died shortly before the film was released, and just after he previewed Casino Jack at the Movies for Grownups Film Festival in Orlando last September) presents Abramoff’s story as broad farce, and for the most part the ploy works. The film would seem to have us believe that the abuses of Abramoff and his ilk occur only when Republicans are running Washington — the depictions of George W. Bush and Tom DeLay lack only horns and pitchforks — but Casino Jack’s strokes are so broadly painted it’s hard to take offense. Casino Jack isn’t history, it’s a hoot.