Casino Jack

Directed by George Hickenlooper

Opens Jan. 7 at the Charles Theater

It's a little discombobulating

to realize that “super” lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding American Indian tribes and SunCruz Casinos, political corruption, and tax evasion charges in federal court only four years ago. But that’s what happens when the economy tanks. The ongoing troubles of America’s too-big-to-fail financial sector makes those halcyon influence-peddling days under then President George W. Bush feel almost quaint in comparison.

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Almost

, that is. As

Taxi to the Dark Side

and

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

director Alex Gibney outlined in his documentary

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

, American political power is for sale, especially when the barker is a salesman as gifted as Abramoff. Abramoff began serving his sentence in November 2008 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, and even did a stint at a Baltimore halfway house while delivering pizzas for the kosher Tov Pizza. He was released Dec. 3.

Casino Jack

, the “inspired by” a true story biopic, aims for a completely different tone than Gibney’s investigative muckraking. With Kevin Spacey’s glib slickness making Abramoff charmingly snarky, and Barry Pepper turning Abramoff crony Michael Scanlon into a blithe weasel,

Casino Jack

tries to play the mid-2000s lobbying scandal as entertaining satire. What

Casino Jack

aims for is that huckster vibe where the crime Abramoff commits isn’t the wholesale swindling of people; his crime is that he got caught.

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It would be an ideal tone if the late director George Hickenlooper and screenwriter Norman Snider could maintain that cynicism throughout, but a self-satisfied wink sneaks through too often. Spacey’s Abramoff is a Ronald Reagan-adoring, ex-movie-producing, observant Jew with the ears of people such as Sen. Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett) and conservative activist Ralph Reed (Christian Campbell) whenever he wants them. Thanks to helping derail John McCain’s 2000 presidential nomination campaign, Abramoff has a buddy in the Oval Office. And because he’s such a smooth talker—as witnessed in the movie’s opening scene, where Abramoff pauses during brushing his teeth to give himself a Jake LaMotta motivational ego boost—he can talk just about anybody out of their money or get their vote, whether it’s taking DeLay golfing in Scotland or getting a member of a Native American gambling board member to vouch for him and Scanlon to his peers. According to

Casino Jack

, the quickest way to get between a politician and his vote or a special interest and its money is an Abramoff pitch.

And Spacey has a field day playing this man. Abramoff’s wife Pam (Kelly Preston) smiles and goes along with his clowning—this Abramoff has a knack for resorting to movie quotes and impersonations at awkwardly stressful moments—keeps track of their brood, and doesn’t question too much about the mortgage apparently getting paid late. As long as Abramoff fast talks enough about his Washington restaurants and his Jewish school and other philanthropic endeavors, surely they’re not running into any money problems. Who cares if it’s entirely above board?

The way Spacey big kahunas through his lobbying offices in this movie, it’s a wonder that anybody could think Abramoff’s success wasn’t a little dodgy somewhere. He and his partner Scanlon (Pepper does as great a Teflon sleaze as vintage James Spader), who buys a derelict Delaware mansion and constantly cheats on his fiancee (Rachelle Lefevre), often carry on like power-suited clichés, though thanks to Spacey and Pepper’s rapid-fire repartee, they make it hilarious to watch. But by the time Jon Lovitz shows up as Adam Kidan, the mattress salesman set up to be the frontman for Abramoff and Scanlon’s power grab of the Miami-based casino cruise line, and character actor Maury Chaykin shows up as a mobbed-up something or other,

Casino

starts to feel like a lesser Elmore Leonard story as co-written by David Mamet and Tucker Max.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad situation, just one that makes the movie’s tone feel a little bipolar. What starts off as a rather comic morality tale becomes full-on ridiculous once a Greek is taking a ballpoint pen to Kidan’s neck, and while truth is always stranger than fiction, truthiness is a different matter altogether.

Casino Jack

takes an odd pleasure in playing greed for simplistic hubris and convenient comeuppance, but it’s a little hard to take any delight in watching the downfall of one Washington snake oil salesman when there were probably scores waiting to take his place.

And that’s what makes

Casino Jack

lack bite. Toward the movie’s end it tries to create a sense of drama out of the motor-mouth Abramoff invoking the Fifth Amendment before a senate judicial hearing, and in one inspired bit of wish fulfillment Spacey’s Abramoff stands up and berates the entire board for having their hand in the lobbying cookie jar, just not on his side of the bad press. It’s an inspired scene, one that hints at where Spacey and

Casino

could have gone if it had a bit more chutzpah. Instead, it settles for serving up Abramoff as the system’s misbehaving wild child instead of going after the system that permits such men to roam free.

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