There are two movies titled Casino Jack, and both are about the infamous lobbyist, Washington double-dealer and scandal magnet Jack Abramoff.
You don't need to see them both. If you saw Alex Gibney's 2010 documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, out on DVD, you know the parameters of the scandal, the sleazy connections linking casino cash, the Christian Coalition and efforts to funnel money into the coffers of certain well-placed congressmen.
But if you expect to make much out of Casino Jack, George Hickenlooper's faintly fictionalized drama built around another epic turn by Kevin Spacey, you might want to give a quick look at the documentary. It's hard to "follow the money" in the Spacey film, and Watergate taught us that that's what you do when you're figuring out a Washington scandal.
Spacey plays Abramoff as a ruthless operator with a Hollywood flair. This Abramoff wore tailored suits and arrogance as armor against his doubters. He is a supposed idealist who made deals with anti-Semites so he could bring Jewish schools and Jewish dining to Washington with his ill-gotten gains, a guy sensitive to Jewish slurs but not above calling Native Americans "Tonto."
Barry Pepper plays Abramoff's loose-cannon fellow lobbyist, the guy who figures out the best way to make a fortune is to find clients — Indian tribes running casinos — bully them by overcharging them and play them against other tribes that might want to open a casino nearby.
Hickenlooper (Factory Girl) makes great use of Washington locations, and the whole film has the smell of the corridors of power. And long before Spacey's Abramoff hisses, "I want you to call our friends at Fox News," you know this isn't going to be a movie that plays "fair and balanced" when the facts don't back that up.
Abramoff is kept on at this firm and that one because of his connections to George W. Bush and other GOP heavy hitters. He bends Congress to his will, protecting sweatshops in the Marianas Islands, manipulating congressional action on minimum-wage laws. He takes congressmen on golf junkets to Scotland. And he reacts to being fired as he sullies the reputation firm after firm with volcanic displays of ego and temper.
A tale that involves kickbacks, political favors and murder, the film is at its most confusing when it separates from Abramoff, showing us The Washington Post's growing interest in his stature and his dealings, the over-extended lifestyle (Kelly Preston plays Mrs. Abramoff) that Jack's hustling has to cover and the nature of the hustles themselves. Far more entertaining is Spacey blowing up at his muddling, coke-addled partner, at the goofy lowlife (Jon Lovitz, perfect) brought in to be the public face for the casinos that Abramoff & Co. took over.
The movie does little with Abramoff's lip-biting fury at the veiled anti-Semitism he feels from some of those he shares "prayer breakfasts" with, and mostly leaves out Ralph Reed in revealing the scummy ways a Christian political action committee was misused to fight casinos that didn't employ Abramoff as their lobbyist.
Gibney's documentary was a cautionary tale. Hickenlooper, who died as the film was about to come to theaters, threw caution to the wind. He heavy-handedly tried to make sense of it all and then conjured "a Hollywood ending." The trouble is, Hollywood hustler Abramoff never provided one.