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Toronto 2010: 'Casino Jack' director deals a new hand

September 14, 2010 |  7:00 am


EXCLUSIVE: George Hickenlooper, the multi-dimensional filmmaker whose Beltway drama "Casino Jack" is one of the sleepers here in Toronto, is taking his eclectic career in yet another direction.

Hickenlooper has signed on to direct "How to Make Love Like an Englishman," a drama about a Cambridge professor of Byronic poetry who himself lives a life of Byronic excess, until his advancing age forces him to reevaluate his priorities. Pierce Brosnan is set to star as said professor. (Michelle Pfeiffer had at one point been loosely attached to star as the female lead, but another actress is likely to take the role.)

There's a good pedigree to the film on the production side: Inferno Entertainment, the company behind summer sleeper "The Kids Are All Right," will produce the picture, which could shoot as early as the fall.  (Incidentally, the story of a successful man coping with the vicissitudes of age was on display with the Toronto selection "Barney's Version," in which Paul Giamatti also plays a man of indulgences who's thrown for a loop later in life.)

Hickenlooper, a self-described political junkie, has tackled myriad subjects. The filmmaker has now gone from the acclaimed 2003 documentary "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" to the Edie Sedgwick biopic "Factory Girl" (2006) to the political documentary "Hick Town" last year and, now, to the Kevin Spacey-toplined "Casino Jack."

Amid all the films hyped as Oscar contenders in Toronto, the dramatized story of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which comes out in theaters this fall from Dave Matthews' ATO, is one of those gems hidden in plain sight.

The film traces, with colorful persuasiveness, the journey of a lobbyist who rises to the top of the K Street heap only to have an ugly and public fall from grace after an Indian casino influence-peddling scandal. (More on the movie from its principals shortly.) "Casino Jack," no relation to the Alex Gibney doc of the same subject and a similar name, includes an eerily convincing main character, whom Spacey incarnates as theatrical, duplicitous, complicated and sometimes even warm.

Those nuances are something Hickenlooper says he explicitly sought from the character.

"It's tough when you're a filmmaker and you go into a studio and they say, 'We have to like the character, or we have to sympathize with him.' " Hickenlooper said. "No you don't. Do you sympathize with Travis Bickle? No. But you do empathize with his loneliness. I've always been interested in antiheroes. Jack Abramoff is a great antihero."

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Kevin Spacey, left, and Barry Pepper in "Casino Jack." Credit: ATO Pictures

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