Review: `Casino Jack’ a vexing Abramoff portrait

By David Germain
AP Movie Writer May 2010

Just when we thought we were benumbed to further indignation over how all those greedy S.O.B.s got us into this economic mess, along comes “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” to tick us off all over again.

Lobbyist-turned-prison-lodger Jack Abramoff was looking like small fry amid the colossal avarice and corruption that came to light as the economy fell off a cliff. While we can’t blame the recession on Abramoff, Alex Gibney’s comprehensively detailed documentary might make people wish they could.

The clutching, clawing venality “Casino Jack” exposes is infuriating, the arrogance of Abramoff and his cronies symbolic of the I’m-getting-mine-and-then-some recklessness that ruined the average guy’s finances.

Like any good story, the film has surprises and thrills, laughs and absurdities, heroes and loads of villains. The story will leave you disturbed and disgusted, though, and a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information director Gibney packs in, his exhaustive portrait of Abramoff eventually becoming exhausting.

It is a good sort of tired you will experience after watching “Casino Jack,” the kind of tired you feel from acing an exam after a hard all-night cram session.

You can pat yourself on the back for sticking with a tough subject, and you even feel a little smarter. But you’re glad it is over.

Gibney, whose films include “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and Academy Award winner “Taxi to the Dark Side,” spins another dense real-life drama about the abuses of power.

Through archival footage and interviews with disgraced congressmen Tom DeLay and Robert Ney and other former Abramoff associates, the film presents a detailed account of the man’s rise to supreme Washington influence peddler, living the high life off the millions he charged Indian gaming interests and corporations looking to buy favor with the nation’s leaders.

It is heavy going, almost too much to absorb in places, but Gibney never lets his film bog down for long. The life of Abramoff is too rich in goofiness, so there always is a fresh chuckle coming.

Images of College Republicans leader Abramoff taking a sledgehammer to a mock Berlin Wall in the 1980s. Footage of Dolph Lundgren in “Red Scorpion,” the 1989 action thriller Abramoff produced before he turned to lobbying. Details about Abramoff pal Michael Scanlon’s American International Center, which funneled political contributions from Indian tribes and was headed by a lifeguard who acknowledges he was not qualified “to run a Baskin-Robbins,” let alone an international think tank.

Gibney met privately with Abramoff in prison, where he is doing time for wire fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. But the filmmaker got no on-camera access, and that absence leaves a hole.

The filmmaker tells an authoritative story without an Abramoff confessional. Still, old footage of Abramoff and fresh impressions from his associates are no substitute for hearing Casino Jack’s story from his own mouth.

Gibney tries to lighten things up with clips from Hollywood films – “Patton,” predictably “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” surprisingly the baseball saga “The Natural.”

The clips wind up trivializing the film a bit, particularly the repeated snippets from “Mr. Smith.” Frank Capra’s characters lived in a fantasy land, the sort of place audiences like to go to escape and see decency triumph over the nasty, preposterous reality represented by “Casino Jack.”

Sure, it would be nice to hold up Stewart’s high-minded Senate newbie Jefferson Smith as an idealized flipside to the Abramoffs and DeLays of Washington. But after watching “Casino Jack,” most of us probably would be satisfied if our leaders were just a little corrupt – enough to prick a little, but not enough to bleed us dry.

“Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R for some language. Running time: 118 minutes. Three stars out of four.