Casino Jack; R, 108 minutes; Opening Friday

Surely no offense to Anne Hathaway and James Franco was intended when bloggers revived the idea that Kevin Spacey ought to host next year’s Oscars. It might not be a bad idea. After all, as an actor he’s basically gone to seed. Maybe it’s time for something else.

Locally-owned production company ATO Pictures picked up distribution rights for Casino Jack in October, weeks before its director George Hickenlooper died in his sleep at age 47. In the film, Kevin Spacey plays the jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Spacey’s so funny, people say. He’s got that special dryness of delivery—or rather, an aridity of feeling that’s been given the benefit of our doubt. And he does the song-and-dance stuff, plus all those impressions—or rather, taken together his tricks might add up to a passable shorthand for old-fashioned showmanship. He’s just plain cool—or rather, his own Oscar-authenticated success has been like a steady heat loss, a plateau of plainness. And now, yes, he somehow seems to stand for the crass emptiness of it all.

So if and when Spacey arrives center-stage for Oscars 2012, we can all be in on the joke about how he was prepared for the gig by starring in that loopy biopic about the College Republican, observant Jew, restaurateur, compulsive movie-quoter, Dolph Lundgren enabler, and, oh yes, fraud-mongering political lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Convicted in 2006 of mail fraud and conspiracy, Abramoff was at the heart of an extensive corruption investigation that put him in federal prison, along with Representative Bob Ney and a handful of other lobbyists and White House officials.

Casino Jack, itself dramatized very much like a hammy award-hawking telecast, is resoundingly lousy—but by the time Spacey gets his shot at hosting the great tinseltown pageant, who’s gonna care? “Washington is Hollywood with ugly people,” his Abramoff reminds us, somewhere between the opening pep-talk-to-self in a men’s room mirror and the Senate-hearing dream sequence; the rest is a whirlwind of buying legislators, selling influence, glad-handing his way through offshore sweatshops and gambling boats, golfing in Scotland, getting in hot water, having frothy tantrums and heading inexorably toward the slammer.

Screenwriter Norman Snider and the late director George Hickenlooper get credit, but it’s really Spacey’s show. Other abetters include Barry Pepper—whose usual spark doesn’t quite ignite as Abramoff’s slickster partner Michael Scanlon—and Jon Lovitz, who seems so well cast as the louche mattress salesman Adam Kidan that all he really has to do is show up. Kelly Preston plays Abramoff’s loyal spouse, Pam, who gets to go from actually saying that she loves his dorkiness to answering his malfeasance with an enormous melodramatic meltdown.

The movie suffers not just from having been beaten to the punch by Alex Gibney’s documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, but also by the sleazy tedium of the sad true story from which both films are built. This latter, only nominally a satire, gives us headline-scanning outrage repurposed as smug pseudo-pity. It’s like they thought, “Hey, what if we humanize him?” and then talked it over for a while and decided, “Nah.”

“Hell no” would have been more declarative; Casino Jack just isn’t genuinely angry enough. Instead it’s all just a billow of benign, expensive smarm—not unlike that of your average awards-show extravaganza. When will we roll out Mr. Spacey’s red carpet?

Posted In:     Arts

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