Performances are right on the money in so-so ‘Casino Jack’

Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper star in ‘Casino Jack.

By Ellen Futterman,Editor

“Casino Jack” might not have been intended as a buddy movie, but knockout performances from both Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper, as business associates and confidantes, are clearly what makes the film worth seeing. Otherwise, this “inspired by true events” story, directed by the late George Hickenlooper, a St. Louis native, never seems to find the right footing, as it ambles between fact and farce.

Two-time Oscar-winner Spacey stars as disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose notorious scams with partner-in-crime Michael Scanlon (a delightfully slimy Pepper) include bilking Native American gambling operations out of millions and the shady purchase of a floating Florida-based casino. The latter has Abramoff enlisting the help of a schleppy mattress magnet with mob connections, played with comic ravage by Jon Lovitz.

We first meet Abramoff as he stares in the mirror while brushing his teeth and ranting about the perils of mediocrity. He also tells us he works out every day. We see him doing just that throughout the film, as he postures and schemes as well as wines and dines the likes of Tom DeLay and other top-ranking Washington Republicans. He’s haughty, headstrong and lavishes expletives with the same gusto that he brokers deals.

But there’s also the kosher-eating, kippah-wearing Abramoff, a seemingly pious Jew devoted to his wife (Kelly Preston) and five kids, who dreams of building a Jewish school because he thinks public education in D.C. is an abomination.


Hickenlooper, working from a script by Norman Snider, unleashes the illegalities at a frenetic pace, so much so that they serve to confuse us rather than illuminate Abramoff as a compelling study in contradictions. Despite those shortcomings, Spacey does a stellar job imbuing the character’s dimensions, though we still never understand the root behind his decisions. Was it greed, philanthropy, or did the lure of power and influence among Washington’s elite deflect his better judgment?

The movie first played here at the St. Louis International Film Festival in November, which Hickenlooper, who graduated from St. Louis University High School, was scheduled to attend. But he died of an accidental painkiller overdose a week earlier so Spacey came in his place and the film was screened as a tribute.

Those wanting to find out more about Abramoff should consider renting “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” a recent documentary by Alex Gibney. Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder, now that Abramoff is out of prison, whether he’ll wind up like his old pal (and fellow convict) DeLay dancing with the stars.

‘Casino Jack’

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R, language

Opens: Friday, Jan. 7