Now playing: Casino Jack and Country Strong
The late George Hickenlooper's Casino Jack is an improbably blithe cautionary tale, recounting the rise and fall of D.C. super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "You're either a big-leaguer or you're a slave clawing your way onto the C train," the avid antihero (Kevin Spacey) tells his mirrored reflection in the pre-credit sequence; most everything that follows in this flat, obvious movie is filtered through Abramoff's consciousness and dominated by Spacey's patented brand of smooth insincerity. Screenwriter Norman Snider downplays Abramoff's career as a hard right political operative in favor of the fun of his wheeler-dealerism and personal eccentricities. The presence of Tom DeLay and Karl Rove look-alikes notwithstanding, the notion of a permanent lobbocracy is underdeveloped. Abramoff is a weirdly self-righteous hustler, devoted to faith and family, shaking down Native Americans and a Greek gangster to finance his plans for a Jewish school and K Street kosher deli. In the grand finale, Abramoff fantasizes about using a Senate hearing to blow the whistle on the entire corrupt establishment. His rant offers a clue to how this otherwise pointlessly manic movie might have honed its political edge. Although Abramoff is no longer in jail in real life, the movie ends with the perp behind bars. He exits on a cloud of hot air, threatening to expose the Republicans on his release. Really? John Boehner and Eric Cantor (for whom the lobbyist named his deli's roast-beef-on-challah sandwich) must be quaking in their boots.
Kelly Canter is the Courtney Love of country stars. Spectacular meltdowns on stage have forced Kelly (an inconsistently twanging Gwyneth Paltrow) into rehab. There, her decolletage decked out in black lace and a bling cross, she jams in more than one sense with singer-songwriter-janitor Beau (Tron fox, Garrett Hedlund), until her husband, James (actual country star Tim McGraw, who inexplicably doesn't sing until the closing credits), drags her on a three-date comeback tour. A sexless Svengali (his reaction to Kelly's revelation that she's just had "one of them Brazilian bikini waxes" is the film's best punchline), James has already found an opening act in Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), the Katy Perry of would-be country stars, whose fierce determination is equal parts honey and acid. Country Strong is sillier — and more tone-deaf — than Paltrow's advice website GOOP. The intersection of Chiles and Beau's rise with Kelly's epic downward spiral (embodied in the image of her crying on a massive JumboTron as floor-to-ceiling American flags are unfurled on either side) is pure A Star Is Born stuff. Except there's no knowingness here, making Country Strong a rare specimen in our post-ironic age: legitimately unintentional camp.
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