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Review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

The globe-trotting misdeeds of Jack Abramoff
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  June 24, 2010
2.5 2.5 Stars

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Alex Gibney has a gift for turning stories of corruption so thick they're nearly impenetrable into simple tales of unfettered greed and malfeasance. His Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) is a concise model of the form. The sober, unsettling Oscar-winner Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) addresses humanitarian concerns in the War on Terror with precision. His latest effort, about the fedoraed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, synthesizes the globe-trotting misdeeds of the free-marketeer into a rollicking two hours, but Casino Jack and the United States of Money never decides whether it's more keen to froth over Abramoff's gluttony or the pay-to-play system he helped to ingrain in Washington DC.

Recently vilified in The Yes Men Fix the World and just about every Michael Moore documentary, all the major proponents of second-wave free-enterprise economics — along with Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist — are tidily condemned in Casino Jack, most effectively in a sequence where the alleged saviors of corporate power are implicated in a scandal outlawing Indian casinos in Texas to bolster the profits of another tribe's casino in a neighboring state. The hypocrisy is delicious, but for some reason Gibney doesn't dwell on it; instead, it's just one of many chapters of increasingly audacious money-laundering schemes (involving, for instance, a lifeguard who is made the president of a shadow organization purportedly run out of his home) punctuated by the predictably wry placement of pop songs (Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House") and archival film clips.

Gibney seems so swept up in the giddy excesses of Abramoff's lavish "research trips" for and kickbacks to congressmen, not to mention Abramoff's paranoid worldview and pricelessly obscene and incriminating e-mail records, that a hasty coda tying the parade of deregulatory conservative victories (largely orchestrated by Abramoff) to the ongoing financial crisis feels strangely undernourished. Similarly, the congressmen he snipes down (and, in the cases of Tom DeLay and Bob Ney — who both resigned in the wake of the Abramoff scandal — the people he interviews) get off too easily. There's enough moral outrage in Casino Jack to fill five separate, damning accounts of the corruption pervading our government, but perhaps too much for just one.

119 Minutes | SPACEGallery: June 27-28 @ 7:30 pm

Director Alex Gibney and Associate Producer Sam Black will appear at a Q&A following both screenings.

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