Spacey is so funny, people say. He has that special dryness of delivery—or an aridity of feeling that’s been given the benefit of our doubt. He does the song-and-dance stuff, plus all those impressions—or, taken together, his tricks might add up to a passable shorthand for old-fashioned showmanship. And he’s just plain cool—or 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 when Spacey arrives center stage for Oscars 2012, we can all be in on the joke about how his best preparation for the gig was starring as the college Republican, observant Jew, restaurateur, compulsive movie quoter, Dolph Lundgren enabler, and, oh yes, fraud-mongering political lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Casino Jack, itself dramatized very much like a hammy 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 shall we roll out Mr. Spacey’s red carpet?
Directed by George Hickenlooper
With Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Jon Lovitz and Kelly Preston