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Isaac Richardson
Isaac Richardson

Casino Jack

This decision to name names by the director George Hickenlooper seems based on boldness, recklessness or perhaps iron-clad legal assurances. His film uses a fictional sledgehammer to attack the cozy love triangle involving lobbyists, lawmakers and money. It stars Kevin Spacey in an exact and not entirely unsympathetic performance as Abramoff, once one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, who was convicted on charges involving the funds he stole from wealthy Indian casinos while arranging laws for their convenience on Capitol Hill. He has been released on parole and just finished a stint working in a Baltimore pizza parlor.

Casino Jack

The film's story line can be briefly summarized: The lobbyist Abramoff was a dutiful family man and Republican standard bearer who defrauded Indian tribes out of millions to lobby for their casinos. That enriched him and partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) and a good many members of Congress, not all of them Republicans. Abramoff worked out every day, was an observant member of his temple and a smooth and elegant dresser. Somehow at his core, he had no principles and no honesty.

The Abramoff case is a complicated and potentially fascinating subject for a film. His lobbying empire took in millions of dollars by defrauding clients such as Indian tribes seeking government licenses to operate casinos and sweatshop owners in the Northern Marianas Islands looking for exemption from US federal labor laws. He built his business on ties to top Republican and right-wing figures such as one-time House speaker Tom DeLay of Texas, chief Bush political aide Karl Rove, anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition.

Abramoff ultimately pleaded guilty in 2006 to defrauding banks of $23 million stemming from the purchase of a casino cruise line in Florida. (A mob-style hit on the cruise line's owner didn't help, publicity-wise.)

There was ambidextrous lobbying in that Abramoff played both sides - taking the Choctaw as clients to shut down a competing casino owned by the Tigua, and then taking millions more from the Tigua tribe to lobby for reopening the Tiguas' gambling hall.

They was also creative money laundering from tribes so as not to embarrass the recipients. When Ralph Reed lobbied the faithful in Alabama about the evils of gambling so they would help block a proposed dog racing track and state lottery, he didn't tell them that he was paid $1.3 million by the Choctaw tribe, who wanted to block competition for their casino. Abramoff helped shepherd some of the money through Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which gave Reed cover (and Norquist a cut), and through a shell corporation created by Scanlon.

As a lobbyist-for-hire, Abramoff and his greedy protégée Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) have set up a series of very profitable deals with garment owners who are running off-shore sweatshops in the Marianas Islands, with American Indian tribes running casinos, and with a Florida gaming cruise-ship operation owned by a tough Greek entrepreneur (Daniel Kash). Abramoff gets in big-time trouble when he hires Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz) as his middle-man in the deal. This mattress salesman is totally incompetent and winds up paying Big Tony (Maury Chaykin) to teach the Greek a lesson.

Even some dark subplots come off neither as shocking as they should be nor as comical as they could be. And this, despite the presence of comedian Jon Lovitz as a sleazy businessman Abramoff hires to run a floating casino and who ends up implicating Abramoff in a murder-for-hire scheme.

What exactly makes this guy tick? Is it greed that motivates Casino Jack, as he was known, for his bilking of Indian casinos? Ego? Or is he a good man who just got carried away by a culture of corruption? Each theory is put forth, but none is given any real weight.

He helped thwart Congressional efforts to reform sweatshops in the Northern Marianas Islands, a U.S. protectorate. His offenses weren't just white-collar flimflam. Abramoff's scheme to gain control of a casino cruise line led to a gangland-style murder.

Jon Lovitz does an impish turn as a mobbed-up slimeball mattress tycoon fronting Abramoff's cruise-ship casino scheme. The formidable character actor Maury Chaykin makes every line a zinger as a fat old hired gun. As the lobbyist's junior partner, Michael Scanlon, Barry Pepper is too focused on giving his new oceanfront mansion the proper feng shui to recognize the fast-approaching hoofbeats of fate.

Golden Globe nominee Kevin Spacey has a ball and then some playing the devil inside Jack Abramoff, the corrupt GOP lobbyist who ran wild during the W. years. Director George Hickenlooper (who died at 47 in October) leans heavily on the comedy buttons in Norman Snider's script. Too heavily. But Hickenlooper's final film aptly reflects the gung-ho spirit that infused his documentaries (Hearts of Darkness) and features (Factory Girl). Abramoff did time for, among other things, fraud involving casinos owned by American Indians. The film traces his roots back as a Jewish kid in Beverly Hills, through his dealings with partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), middleman Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz, fab) and mobster Big Tony (the late Maury Chaykin). Add Jack's wife, Pam (Kelly Preston), and the movie nearly flies off its already shaky handle. Spacey holds center. He's a bonfire.

He helped thwart congressional efforts to reform sweatshops inthe Northern Marianas Islands, a U.S. protectorate. His offensesweren't just white-collar flimflam. Abramoff's scheme to gaincontrol of a casino cruise line led to a gangland-style murder.

If Abramoff comes off as a slick but soulless cypher given toeruptions of cornball machismo, his co-conspirators areentertaining buffoons. Jon Lovitz does an impish turn as amobbed-up slimeball mattress tycoon fronting Abramoff'scruise-ship-casino scheme. 041b061a72


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