Thank goodness that the late George Hickenlooper's biographical exposé of Jack Abramoff and the dubious Washington, D.C. lobbying system leans more toward comedy than serious drama while detailing the downfall of the disgraced super-lobbyist, because otherwise it might be one of the most depressing movies of the decade. Like Mary Poppins once said, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," and thanks to a whip-smart script by Norman Snider, a snappy original score by Jonathan Goldsmith, and dynamic performances by Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, and Jon Lovitz, in particular, Casino Jack manages to amuse at the same time that it cynically reveals just how hopelessly broken the American political system has become due to the bottomless pit of greed that threatens to swallow our nation's capitol whole.
When Jack Abramoff (Spacey) and resourceful businessman Michael Scanlon (Pepper) team up to exert their influence over some the biggest players in Washington, D.C., their bid to strike it rich pays off, big-time. But somewhere between the high-profile deals, high-roller hotel suites, and million-dollar yachts, the profit-loving pair makes the mistake of recruiting a motor-mouthed mob flunky (Lovitz) to earn some extra income under the table. At first the cash is rolling in, but when a deal with a seedy floating casino goes awry and word gets out that Jack and Michael have ties to the Mob, the resulting scandal turns their life of luxury into a living hell.
One needn't be well-schooled in the inner workings of Washington, D.C., to appreciate the point that director Hickenlooper and screenwriter Snider are making about the corrosive effects of lobbying by dramatizing the story of Jack Abramoff, because in addition to skillfully detailing exactly how the lobbying system works, the pair also does a commendable job of revealing precisely how the process destroys the integrity of all involved -- no matter how good their intentions may be. Every voter knows that politicians have a tendency to get so drunk with power that they forget their job is to serve the public, rather than control us, and Spacey personifies that wayward attitude with the kind of charismatic finesse that vividly reflects his subject's seductive allure -- to the point that we occasionally even sympathize with Abramoff, despite the fact that we realize his actions are deplorable. By refusing to paint in broad strokes, Snider plays up Abramoff's contradictions and complexities in a way that makes him fallibly human. Hickenlooper and Spacey help to accentuate this element of the character by highlighting Abramoff's conflicting attitudes between his personal and professional lives, and it's a testament to Spacey's talent that we come to recognize the connective tissue that binds the dual part of his character's personality. From his opening monologue on mediocrity to his frustrated, fiery response to the hypocritical politicians who happily took his cash before hanging him out to dry later on, Spacey is positively electric in the role. So much so that when we finally see news footage of the real Abramoff during the credits of the film, he frankly comes off as a little vanilla. And while Pepper's pupils seem to be made out of CG dollar signs throughout the film, leave it to Lovitz to effortlessly run away with some of the funniest moments in the entire film. His comic timing is impeccable as ever, and his slippery escape from a pair of FBI agents delivers one of Casino Jack's most unexpected -- and effective -- laughs.
Eye-opening -- and at times repulsive -- in the way that it so adroitly reveals how easily our politicians can be bought and paid for, Casino Jack finds director Hickenlooper going out on a high note for the way he at once informs and entertains viewers without giving his film a hint of damning, you-should-have-known-better smugness. His final film highlights a growing talent for narrative storytelling driven by the passion of an experienced documentary filmmaker. For that and many other reasons, it's a shame we lost him so soon.