Kevin Spacey works best under restraint, his actorly fireworks a controlled explosion in a deadly smarm factory.
Free to indulge himself as real-life disgraced political lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the late George Hickenlooper’s political satire/biopic, he’s a microcosm of the film’s hits and misses: enjoyable but muddled.
Spacey aces it to start: oozing narcissism and spouting a power-monologue to the mirror, he’s Travis Bickle with a toothbrush.
Dishing the dense dialogue that explains Abramoff’s crimes (he did worse than produce Dolph Lundgren films), his natural verbosity energises Norman Snider’s script.
Good greasebag support comes from Barry Pepper too, more teeth’n’tan than man as Abramoff’s oleaginous colleague. But if Jon Lovitz’s dodgy bed salesman seems to stumble in from a more cartoonish movie, Spacey gradually seems to be occupying several half-cooked movies at once.
Pumping weights while on the phone, doing daft impressions (Reagan, Rocky, Don Corleone…) and declaring his love of his kids, he positions Abramoff somewhere between fun guy, family man and torrent of tics.
It’s a performance and portrait spread too thin: too flimsy for character study, too affable for political exposé, too soft for the satire Hickenlooper clearly aspires to. Sure, director and writer shoulder blame for firing off-target.
But when Abramoff is arrested and snapped by police, what pops most readily to mind is how much sharper Spacey was in the cuffs and mug shots of those earlier films.