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Casino: Joker as Wild Card
You don't know Jack?
Now you will.
"Casino Jack" is both a gambol and a gambit that the trust-buster story of Jack Abramoff -- treacherous traitor of the trust of his family and friends, not to mention the public once he turned Washington lobbying into a foyer of self-enrichment -- will find its slot among Hollywood's great depictions of the good, the bad and the egregious, in this case all rolled into one man who played craps with everyone else's credibility cards.
It's all about one-eyed Jack-- the one focused on corruption; the other, absurdly, on Jewish values -- who makes for an incongruously unorthodox Orthodox Jew following his own hypocritical halachah into hell.
Based on the real-life lobbyist who parlayed his con of Native American casino owners into prison time, "Casino Jack," opening on Jan. 7, hijacks his hypocrisy and sends it into a tailspin of Russian roulette.
Here is an adored, quite charismatic family man whose furious finagling indirectly puts him into cahoots with the Family -- all the while playing the role of Talmud-quoting king of devout davening, while divorced from reality.
He is performing a Jewish play all his own: See Abramoff's "Muddied Midrash" -- a comic tragedy explaining away his 2006 convictions (also involving an off-shore casino, a real floating crap game) for fraud by relying on his religious convictions of helping others with the money he stole.
A robbing hood with rabbinics as his Friar John? Outlandishly, yes.
Kevin Spacey owns the room as the good-humored, bad-ethics Abramoff, whose sense of duty is to pay no duty on funneling funds into his own pocket even as Jon Lovitz -- no lie -- is in a league of his own as Abramoff's matzah ball of a front man in his off-shore casino royale ripoffs.
These actions are antithetical to Jewish values, yet, somehow, Abramoff's dreams are draped with opening his own Hebrew school, and are soaked in Jewish visions of grandeur, even while steeped in a vortex of venomous achievements.
If he were a rich man, turns out he wouldn't yidle-deidel-deidle-di all day, but diddle away other people's money.
Tevye, guard the Talmud because all Torah pointers point to Abramoff as a man whose heart is in the rite place, if not his morals. Indeed, this President Reagan appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council often sought counsel from Rabbi David Lapin of South Africa, his spiritual advisor.
Go West, young man? Horace Greeley would grit his teeth at Abramoff's direction: South Africa. The continental con man had his own moral compass on that nation's internal politics, a supporter for its apartheid apparatchiks in the '80s.
Sounds like a film unto itself: Indeed, before his political machinations, Abramoff had actually been a Hollywood producer; his "Red Scorpion" in 1989 took a bite at the anti-apartheid movement and, not so coincidentally, was funded by the South African regime in power.
Not exactly your traditional talmudic scholar: But then, what can one expect of a man of moral turpitude and turncoat theatrics who turned his true love of "Fiddler on the Roof" into an ersatz commitment to Orthodoxy?
The kipah-clad con man -- whose tzitzit sensibility provided the conniver with his own outlandish sense of entitlement to life as fringe festival -- couldn't cover his bets, but ironically won his way into big inner circles, squaring his principles with a need for big pals in the Oval Office. Professional yet bush-league simultaneously, Abramoff actually served on President George W. Bush's 2001 transition team to the White House.
Joker as wild card? A felonious funster -- maybe not a stand-up guy, but certainly a man with a stand-up comic's sense of timing -- who was released from a half-way house last month after serving an abbreviated sentence, Abramoff is depicted in the film as a team player with a broken-down rule book.
This isn't the first film this past year to examine Orthodoxy gone awry; "Holy Rollers" has its Chasid hero turning to drug dealing in a fact-based film that laid guilt and tefillin at the feet of a young rebbe with a bad cause.
Then there was that other Jewish, albeit non-Orthodox, story of lust, greed and geshreis that left victims weakened at Bernie's: Madoff, Abramoff -- it's enough to set anti-Semites off and running into the streets with "I told you so's."
Jewish shaman and his shandah, Abramoff and his story pose that inevitable question vexing the Chosen People, since they chose to go one way while others went the other: Is it good for the Jews?
No, but it is for fans of good movies, who can bet the halfway house that "Casino Jack" is playing with a fulsome deck, even as it shows the unhumbled Abramoff ultimately decked out in hubris amid the hubbub of fame and fortune -- and unfulfilled pledge cards.