Surely no offense to Anne Hathaway and James Franco was intended last Sunday when some bloggers revived the idea that Kevin Spacey ought to host next year’s Oscars. It might not be a bad idea. After all, he’s pretty much gone to seed as an actor.
Spacey’s so funny, people say; he’s got that special dryness of delivery — or: 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: taken together, his tricks might add up to a passable shorthand for old-fashioned showmanship. 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 all dimpled and dapper for Oscars 2012, we call all be in on the joke about how his best preparation for the gig was 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.
“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.
Spacey’s 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 (sleazdium?) of the sad true story from which both films are built. It begs the question: From whence arose the misconception that Abramoff’s saga needed cinematic canonization in the first place? Neither film, underneath its sweaty hustle, seems entirely convinced. 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 and made for more adventurous stuff. Although a flamboyant sketch of manic, petty, greed-fueled hubris, “Casino Jack” just isn’t genuinely angry or vicious enough. That’s Spacey’s doing, but also thanks to screenwriter Norman Snider (“Dead Ringers”) and director George Hickenlooper (“Hearts of Darkness”). Yes: The writer of a David Cronenberg film about highly creepy twin gynecologists and the director of a documentary about Francis Coppola freaking out over “Apocalypse Now” have collaborated on a film about American political debauchery. There was at least a chance for greatness.
With Hickenlooper having died unexpectedly at age 47 last fall and no longer around to defend himself, it seems churlish to get hung up in apportioning blame for the high cringe factor of “Casino Jack.” But it is fair to say something is amiss in the Snider-Hickenlooper combo. Watching their movie feels like being trapped at a business luncheon with a tag-team of windbags who agree that the only real criterion for good storytelling is that you can’t make this stuff up! Maybe that’s exactly how it felt to hang with Abramoff and Scanlon in their wheeler-dealer prime. Well: ugh, already.
One last mentionable detail is Jonathan Goldsmith’s lushly cheeky score — overstuffed with tinkling triangles and do-be-do-dah vocal harmonies, and glibly calculated to register as a swinging-’60s throwback; for all its velvety snideness, it seems like the perfect musical equivalent of a standard-issue Kevin Spacey performance.
And so the net effect of “Casino Jack” is not unlike that of your average awards-show extravaganza: It’s all just a billow of benign, expensive smarm. When shall we roll out Mr. Spacey’s red carpet?