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casino-jack-kevin-spacey-barry-pepper“Casino Jack” is a dark look at the American dream. Based on the true story of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s rise and fall, it recreates the heady days of DC’s greediest decade.

Director George Hickenlooper (who died last year at age 47) lays out a complicated story of how Abramoff peddled his influence on Capitol Hill in return for large cheques. The trouble really starts when he defrauds a Native American tribe out of millions of dollars that he then invests in a floating casino. Add to the mix a crooked mattress salesman (Jon Lovitz), a psychopathic gangster (the late, great Maury Chaykin), a kosher restaurant and a trophy wife or two and you get the essence of Abramoff’s strange tale.

The film begins with a bravura scene of Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) delivering a pep talk to the bathroom mirror that sets the tone for the rest of this fast talking film. The movie moves along like a rocket, propelled by Spacey’s performance. One quibble though, throughout the movie Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) stop the action dead time after time by quoting, verbatim, scenes from other movies, complete with vocal impressions and facial tics. It’s annoying in real life when people do that and it is a device that wears out its welcome VERY early on in the movie.

Apart from those missteps there are good performances all round, although this is Spacey’s movie. The only actor who comes close to pulling focus away from the two time Oscar winner is comedian Jon Lovitz, who has a showy and funny role as a devil-may-care sleaze bag.

Hickenlooper pitches the tone of the entire movie around Spacey’s tightly wound performance. The movie is as playful as the performance, which is sometimes at odds with the story. Abramoff was a narcissistic and nakedly greedy character, not qualities to be admired, but the movie seems to be a bit too impressed with him nonetheless. It’s true that he was a complicated guy who gave away much of the money he illicitly earned but despite his occasional good works he isn’t the loveable scamp the movie tries to present. For a different, and more accurate portrayal, of him check out Alex Gibney’s documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.”

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