Barney's Version, The Tempest and Casino Jack: Warming Up for Oscar

It's holiday time at the multiplex, when little films peep about between blockbusters in hopes of receiving some early awards-season notice. TIME's Richard Corliss takes stock of three contenders

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Melinda Sue Gordon / Touchstone Films / Everett Collection

Actress Helen Mirren in The Tempest.

Saturated by promotions for the big holiday items, moviegoers this month may stroll through their multiplex and notice, in front of the tiniest auditoriums, the titles of unfamiliar pictures starring notable actors: Kevin Spacey in Casino Jack, Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in Barney's Version, Dame Helen Mirren in The Tempest. What are these little films, anyway, and why are they taking up valuable screens that could be showing Little Fockers and Yogi Bear? If Christmas were truly the season for art, every child would want an easel under his tree instead of an Xbox.

The answer is an accident of scheduling. The two weeks before Christmas — the most intense and competitive fortnight of the Hollywood calendar, when perhaps a dozen blockbuster wannabes crowd the theaters — are also the time when critics bestow their year-end awards, and the members of the Motion Picture Academy start sifting through the screeners of movies that the studios have sent them. The critics' prizes bring timely attention to certain performances and pictures aimed at specialized audiences (like critics and Academy members); these citations convince the Oscar voters to maybe watch some of the winning films, and, voilà!, a movie like The Hurt Locker beats out Avatar for Best Picture. That, at least, is the theory in the film business, where hope and hype are best friends forever.

The tactic has a better chance of working when a specialty film has an actor the Academy has already honored — Spacey, say, who has an Actor statuette for American Beauty and one for Supporting Actor in The Usual Suspects; or Mirren, Best Actress in The Queen; or Hoffman, a two-time Actor winner for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man; or Giamatti, who was nominated for Cinderella Man and earned an Emmy for playing John Adams on HBO. Casting an actor with this kind of hardware in an art-house film is the surest way to establish pedigree; the stars bring their reputations with them. It's the indie-movie equivalent of the big-budget sequel.

It happens that none of the actors in Jack, Barney or The Tempest won the favor of any of the critics' groups. But the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated both Spacey and Giamatti in that strange category, Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy; and the HFPA's Golden Globes ceremony is watched avidly by Academy voters and millions of moviegoers. As for Mirren, she copped a Best Actress nomination in the Satellite Awards, another honor bestowed by a group of Hollywood-based journalists. Publicists for the three films can declare Mission Accomplished, or at least a successful launch.

At this point we need to be reminded that Casino Jack, Barney's Version and The Tempest are not just awards-cadging machines; they're movies as well. In that small matter, how do they measure up? What are these little films, anyway?

CASINO JACK

It's not often that a recently convicted felon is the subject of two movies in the same year — Casino Jack, the bio-pic starring Kevin Spacey, and Alex Gibney's docu-exposé Casino Jack and the United States of Money — but Jack Abramoff is irresistible: Beverly Hills High graduate and Washington über-lobbyist, Orthodox Jewish owner of a D.C. kosher restaurant and scammer of Indian tribes, pioneer of the emerging Hard Right (along with his college pals Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist) and Hollywood movie producer (the 1988 war film Red Scorpion). Abramoff certainly saw himself as star material. "Why would you want to make a documentary?" he once wrote. "No one watches documentaries. You should make an action film!"

That email is cited at the beginning of the documentary (now available on DVD), which is much the more entertaining and instructive of the two films. In part that's because it spans the breadth as well as the depth of Abramoff's career; Gibney offers footage of the College Republican parading his charisma, of his high-wired coconspirator Michael Scanlon and of the Native American chiefs whose casinos he billed millions to wipe one another out. Going halfway to Hollywood, Gibney calls on Stanley Tucci to lend his voice to Abramoff memos, and Paul Rudd to do Scanlon's, and provides a reenactment of the killing of Gus Boulis, a Miami businessman connected to Abramoff pal Adam Kidan, who was gunned down in Fort Lauderdale. A one-man Doc-of-the-Month Club — this year he released three other films (My Trip to Al-Qaeda, Freakonomics and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) in addition to the Abramoff caper — Gibney clarifies the lobbyist's intricate, infamous deals, while pouring enough pizzazz into his movie to make it what Abramoff wanted: an action film!

George Hickenlooper, the director of the Spacey Casino Jack, also had a nonfiction background (docs on Dennis Hopper, director Monte Hellman and the Francis Coppola epic Apocalypse Now); even some of his fiction films, like Factory Girl, were based in fact. For his final film — he died in October, at 47 — Hickenlooper worked from a script by Norman Snider, who wrote TV bio-pics of Los Angeles madam Heidi Fleiss and the porn pioneers Jim and Artie Mitchell. Both men have had experience bending sordid real life into sometimes equally sordid drama.

Alas, they've hobbled their chances at an epic tale by concentrating on the final, crumbling years of Abramoff's reign; the movie is less Raging Bull than the last episode of an overextended horror film series. Hickenlooper injects the proceedings with a cinematic hyperactivity; he'll use four shots of Jack from four different angles in a few seconds, when a simple reaction shot would do. The movie is giddy fun, but no match for the sick thrill of the real perpetrators. Though Spencer Garrett does an expert impersonation of Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader and convicted money launderer, he can't measure up to DeLay's smiling mug shot or his rendition of "Wild Thing" on Dancing With the Stars.

Partly because Scanlon was the least public of the story's major malefactors, Barry Pepper can bring the man to adrenaline-fueled life as a roaring, strutting alpha male. And Jon Lovitz makes Kidan a bracingly appalling caricature of grossness and self-doubt. The big casting problem is Spacey. An actor whose gift is suggesting, not displaying — revealing character by seeming to conceal it — he captures little of the confident showman in Abramoff; this Jack is a knave ever brooding that his house of cards is about to collapse. Some love of the game is required here. Abramoff, as shown in Gibney's doc, could easily be played by Seth Rogen, if he could ramp up his urgency quotient. Oddly, Hollywood often refrains from casting Jewish actors in Jewish roles; by choosing Spacey to be Abramoff, Hickenlooper chose a fine actor without even a soupĉon of chutzpah. That's the main reason Casino Jack lacks the felonious zest of the Jack Abramoff.

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