Friday, August 28, 2015

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #8: George Hickenlooper's CASINO JACK

Possible spoilers...

I remember that Casino Jack, a fictionalized "inspired by true events... (elipses included) of the major scandals involving lobbyist and ex-movie producer Jack Abramoff in his and Michael Scanlon's rip-offs of Indian tribes and other casinos, first came out in 2010.  I also remember that I decided at the time, rather foolishly, not to watch it right away (and it did get a theatrical release, though small).  This was all due to some snobbish take on the timing of it; just earlier in the year, Alex Gibney beat George Hickenlooper to the punch (who sadly died just after its premier at TIFF) with the documentary also called Casino Jack, with the subtitle 'And the United States of Money'. 

I decided to look up my review of that before digging in to what I liked about Hickenlooper's film.  I wrote:

"What's intriguing in the film is how it looks at the system of lobbyists in a light not too unlike director Alex Gibney's previous documentary
Enron. There's a certain lifestyle to be maintained with these guys like Abramoff and even his buddy in arms Tom Delay, almost a sort of alpha-male process of living through greed. And some of the best parts of the film actually aren't about the Indian Reservation scandal, but the back-story is what really sucks in a viewer. Abramoff was at the top of the crop, a College Republican at a time when Republicans looked to be on top with Regan in office and a fervent anti-Communists streak going through their methodology. Most amusingly we see an anti-Commie propaganda film Abramoff produced called Red Scorpion, featuring Dolph Lundgren and Abramoff's fascination with spies, which would carry over into his career on his own."

And yes, in case you were wondering, it's as shitty as it looks
I think what I came to realize not too far into Hickenlooper's film was that while the two movies have the same man and world as its subjects, there are different takes on it.  Gibney was showing a little more of the exploitation that Abramoff profited from, like the scandal in the Marianas (this is only given lip-service in the fiction film).  But the strength of the Kevin Spacey movie is simply this: it's funny.  More than that, it's fucking funny.  It's extremely self-aware of it being a movie about a guy who was basically a big movie geek - he often quotes movies to his friends and colleagues, even when (or especially when) it's not entirely appropriate, which is part of the comedy - and also aware of Washington being this wholly corrupt place where people like Abramoff can spring up.

This last point is one that Gibney's film touches on too, and that film's credit it shows a bit more of that side than the fictionalized take does.  But I have to emphasize the comedy because of how good the timing is with these actors as these characters.  Some critics I've read of the film (whether real ones or just commentators on IMDb) have said that Jon Lovitz and/or Kelly Preston were miscast.  Preston could be arguable, though she does perfectly fine for the dramatic moments she's asked to do (maybe just not on the same level as Spacey, who is Kevin friggin Spacey).  Lovitz though... he's better than I've seen him in years!  He's asked to play a sleaze-ball, and he pulls it off with complete conviction.  Was the character supposed to be more competent than this?  It's possible.  But I don't think Hickenlooper was looking for some competent crook in this character, he was looking for the rawest nerves of greed and slobbishness. 

If Lovitz is meant to show the side of criminal folk who are pathetic in an obvious way, Barry Pepper has that pathetic-ness too, but more in that 'Wolf of Wall Street' Wanna-Look-And-Be-Mega-Successful way.  One of the (in a mostly good way) curious aspects of the movie is how the director and screenwriter Norman Preston show how Abramoff and Scanlon are, in their shady business dealings and with one another. 

They're in this whole world and mind-set of Greed is Good, and being in Washington where people can be easily bought for the "special interests" and so on, neither really questions it - they're just more spokes in the corruption wheel that spins, with only minimal oversight from people like Abramoff's bosses (oh, they'll fire him, but only if something 'bad' comes to light in some unethical way that somehow wasn't before).  But these two men, basically, Scanlon is the one who lets it all out; he's buying mansions and big boats, he's living large, and, yeah, he's also a pussy hound.  Abramoff sees himself legitmitately as trying to do "good" (in quotes) with his Hebrew school and Kosher restaurants.

A question I have after watching Casino Jack is: are the filmmakers too light on Abramoff?  Does he come off as too sympathetic here?  Yes and no.  Yes in that, hey, this guy is criminal scum, and of a bad sort as he is in positions of power and is asked/has a reputation to do good for Indian tribes, and in the past he has.  No in that I think the filmmakers know that this character is totally able and willing to take ALL the money that can come his way, and Spacey plays this dichotomy really well.  He makes getting angry very funny - watching Spacey hurl insults at Lovitz, with barely anything worth a comeback towards his way, are highlights, big belly laughs for that - and yet we do know that his delusions of grandeur make him genuine in a way that Scanlon (and how Barry Pepper does it truthfully) is not.  Oh, I just got a Zamboni machine.  You know, for the kids.  What kids?  The kids that will be at the new Hebrew school.  Oh.  But why a hockey rink?   This is the kind of line of logic and questions when it comes to Abramoff and how money works.

I have to go back to movies for a moment: while Hickenlooper is taking this seriously as a drama, I really loved how he goes for these characters sense of popular movies and the culture around them; when Abramoff does a Bill Clinton impression, it goes over with just a smirk.  When Pepper does a De Niro take, it makes someone else angry.  But when it comes time for the Al Pacino And Justice For All set piece at the climax, where Abramoff rails against the Senate hearing on the Native Americans losses, we know that this is just too good to be true.  And it is.  It's a movie running in his head.  Perhaps we're all creating movies and fictions to help us cope with what we're doing here... or we know precisely what we're doing, almost every step until Mattress-Men come around to muck things up, and by we I mean most folks in Washington who have no compunctions for the green bills. 

So, in other words, I feel bad I didn't check out this Casino Jack sooner just due to the other one being in existence.  Having also now seen three seasons of House of Cards, it's fascinating to watch Spacey (without accent) delivering another powerhouse Washingtonian with the moral compass of Nosferatu.  He helps to make the film as enjoyable and engaging as it is - and by the way, it opens (as all self-conscious tragic-comedies should) with a mirror monologue - and is backed by a wonderful supporting cast. 

RIP George Hickenlooper.