Casino Jack

A long holiday weekend, why not go to the movies, I thought, so I braved the traffic to see George Hickenlooper's new release, Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey.

For me, movies are like lovers. The less you know about them in advance, the more you're likely to appreciate them later. About the only thing I knew about Casino Jack was that Jack is Jack Abramoff, a fellow I don't much care about. That said, I do like Kevin Spacey, so I was prepared for two hours of great performances, at least.

I usually like to take a quick glance at the audience when I get to the theatre, and then during the movie to observe reactions of theatregoers. It's never a good sign when a movie theatre is half-empty on opening night. As one who avoids movie reviews like the plague until after I see the movie, the lackluster crowd was ominous, kind of like going to a Chinese restaurant with one table occupied.

It quickly became clear, in the first ten minutes, the film wasn't going to work for me, and I wasn't going to be able to sit through it. For starters, it's hard to make a slug like Jack Abramoff appealing. The first sign of bad writing is one-dimensionalism, and it's virtually impossible to portray Abramoff as anything but a slug. Also, I'm not a big fan of gratuitous, and largely random bigotry, even if its intent is to authenticate the worldview of the lead character.

With the exception of Kevin Spacey, an actor who could read a Pizza Hut menu with gusto, the acting was leaden, and heavily scripted. It was as if every line was placed on a scale, and carefully weighed for significance with the kind of preciousness that would upset even the greatest Shakespearean tragedy. While the writer is responsible for the dialogue, the director is largely responsible for its delivery, and one never loses sight of the artifice even for a moment..

Screenwriter Norman Snider was heroic in his efforts to inject levity into an atmosphere of relentless moral morbidity, but he wasn't able to pull it off. The only way a biopic about somebody like Abramoff might work is if the protagonist were to be infused with Faustian qualities, and Woody Allen neurosis, but then he would be totally unbelievable. Believability is not the same as authenticity. The Abramoff portrayed was believable, but in the same way a cartoon figure might be.

Scenes that were intended to evoke a laugh, as in the opening segue when Casino Jack asks a guard in federal prison if they serve Kosher meals, and the guard replies, "You're in a federal prison. We don't accommodate different religions here," or words to that effect had the opposite effect. Instead of having the desired effect of showing Abramoff's humanness, the response from the audience was heckling, jeering, and guffawing. Likewise, naming one of the characters, "Pancho," just isn't funny to me and not, I'm glad to say, to anyone else in this San Francisco theatre.

While there was no laughter when Casino Jack called out for "Pancho," there was plenty whenever any reference to Abramoff's Jewish faith came up. This, in conjunction with the incessant popcorn chewing and ice gulping from the people behind me, was enough to make me get up midway through the movie and walk out horrified to think that, in what is widely considered the most liberal city in the country, one would have to silently tolerate guffaws and jeers.

But, more importantly, the movie wasn't able to distract the audience from the audience, but instead languished in one caricature of a stereotype after another.

And, yes, I know how the story ends, but that doesn't matter. One has to care about the protagonist, even care enough to hate him. Jack Abramoff, in "Casino Jack," was only able to generate mild amusement to scorn, and from where I sat, there seemed to be more scorn because of his ethnic and religious beliefs than his egregious misdeeds.

Bottom line, though, I didn't walk out because of the the audience, but the movie. When any theatregoer spends that much time watching and listening to the audience instead of looking at the screen, something isn't happening in the movie bigtime.

A fine actor, Kevin Spacey, gives a typically virtuouso performance, but it's not enough to rescue the film from mediocrity.

Maybe it's too soon to watch the capers of a con man lobbyist with anything even remotely resembling historical detachment, and a biopic of Jack Abramoff might fare better in another fifty years when "Casino Jack" has been relegated to the rancid, and continually updating halls of history.