WHEN IT COMES to the balance between helping and hurting, the first of the two films depicting the antics of criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff comes out superior. Alex Gibney's thorough Casino Jack and the United States of Money was a remarkably compact indictment of the charismatic, slimy man who, after three-and-a-half years of federal imprisonment (he was sentenced to six), graduated last month to a halfway house. The breadth of knowledge displayed in Gibney's film only heightens the awareness of the degree to which recently deceased director George Hickenlooper's (Factory Girl, Mayor of the Sunset Strip) dramatized version, Casino Jack, skims Abramoff's crooked dealings with sweatshops and casinos.
Kevin Spacey stars as Abramoff, who's at once a dork who embarrasses his wife with inane movie impressions, a megalomaniac whose favorite catchphrase is "I'm Jack Abramoff and I work out every day," a devoted family man, a compulsive acquirer of restaurants, and superficially obsessed with his own Judaism. Spacey's depiction of a man who lies to others as often as he deludes himself into thinking his motives are noble and his crimes only technical, feels more Spacey than Abramoff, though, as encapsulated in the film, it's a cohesive performance.
Hickenlooper's largest self-imposed hurdles are his insistence that this film be a comedy, as well as in asking the audience to sympathize with Abramoff. The humor in such scenes as where Abramoff and ultra-douche crony Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) gripe about money while practicing their golf swings on a tarmac next to a private jet get parched quickly, and Abramoff's sense of moral superiority is as ineffective on the audience as it is compelling to himself—because in Hickenlooper and Spacey's hands, he isn't funny, relatable, or charming. He's just an asshole who's getting way too much attention.