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Lovitz or Leave It

January 6, 2011 By:
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Two Jews in a pod: Kevin Spacey (left) and Jon Lovitz as morally mixed up members of the tribe in "Casino Jack."

The truth hurts, sure, but lying has its own paean.

Just ask Jon Lovitz, whose "Tommy Flanagan, the Pathological Liar" lies as the foundation for a career which is true grit in action.

"Here I was, no income, and suddenly I'm making a great living" as a member of "Saturday Night Live" (1985 to 1990), where his lively renditions of Tommy; the stentorian Master Thespian -- as well as Hanukkah Harry -- made him a Saturday-night special with a soulful spark that revolved around his dry wit.

That's the ticket -- or it was, until now. Certainly, the University of California at Irvine grad who got his grounding in comedy with the Groundlings comedy gang has a bio of bragging rights -- if Lovitz were the type to brag, which he is not.

But all those credits -- and more than creditable work -- in TV series, specials, other films ("City Slickers II") and even Broadway ("The Dinner Party") are mere hors d'ouevres to the buffet that is the depicted buffoon who helps makes "Casino Jack" -- the fact-based story of laid-low lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his off-off-Broadway cast of creepy cohorts -- such a smorgasbord of sleaze par excellence.

As Adam Kidan, the disbarred lawyer whose every sloppy step takes him closer to the neighborhood bar and whose physique is defined by the six-pack he drinks rather than the abundant abdomen he lugs around, Lovitz brings high resolution to a low-ball slug.

He is the improbable casino front man whom Abramoff bets will help him float the idea of an off-shore casino to investors who look like they could break legs as well as break the bank.

Lovitz, who earned plaudits for his small role in "A League of Their Own" (1992), is major league all the way here, in what could be the movie hit of his career.

But talk about big ... has he really put on that much weight? There was a line, he relates, in which his character is advised to "lay off the buffet," but the line was cut -- not before "I gained a lot of weight for the role."

Well, it is a robust performance. "Now people are going to look at me" -- wearing intentionally too-tight shirts and sporting a chin turning a double into a triple -- "and think, look at that fat," uh, actor.

Known for his comic capabilities, Lovitz at 53 doesn't need a Borscht belt to restrain himself here. Trained in drama before committing to comedy, he could very well achieve what the Master Thespian could only hallucinate about: being in Oscar contention next year.

Lovitz modestly defers credit to the film's late director, George Hickenlooper, who, he emphasizes, brought out the best in him and his co-stars.

Not that Lovitz was loathe to contribute. Indeed, one of the most icy, shattering lines comes from the lips of his character, calling Kevin Spacey's Abramoff "You fake Jew!" -- an appropriate slam from one Jewish character to another whose apocryphal actions belie their his beliefs.

And who better to utter the utterly treif version of treason -- and contribute the line -- than Lovitz, whose "SNL" Liar lit into falsehoods with finesse.

But then, the film and its flim-flam focus twins morality and mendacity in a dozy-do of a dance. Abramoff scams even as he scans horizons for the perfect setting to set up shop as a Hebrew-school owner.

Talmud is tied in knots, not just the ends of a tallit's fringes, as the end justifying the means becomes its own endgame.

Lovitz, whose creative invention has been dubbed genius by former "SNL" co-star Dennis Miller -- weekend update: reluctant recipient Lovitz reciprocates the compliment -- loathes the lying game off-screen.

But what happens when it's Jews who get caught in the treacherous trap that may raise the ante on anti-Semitism? Doesn't the fact that so much of the focus is on Jews -- Abramoff is Orthodox, no less -- involved in indictable crimes a criminal charge against the Jewish image?

Does the film turn up the stereo on stereotypes? Or, in another angle, take a poke at Republicans, pinning the tale on not the donkey, but the elephant? (Abramoff and Kidan are reportedly -- or had been -- party to the GOP.)

"It is not anti-Republican and not anti-Semitic," says the Jewish actor resolutely.

What it all does is reflect on the characters' misguided moral compass -- "not on their religion."

Guilty as Charged

The same, says Lovitz, goes for Bernie Madoff, the man who made off with billions illicitly: "It's not the religion; it's him!"

Clichés can clutter with ignorance. "The old stereotype goes that Jews are cheap. Well, if the person is cheap it's not because of his being Jewish -- it's because he's a cheap person."

Lovitz doesn't stint on his fully realized character here, already lauded and applauded by critics, as well as forever fans of the comic/actor/comedy-club owner, who owns up to the experience on set as a wonderful learning tool, too.

After all, who wouldn't want to -- metaphorically -- clap erasers with two-time Oscar winner Spacey at the behind-the-scenes blackboard, a master mesmerized himself over how much Jewish ritual be revealed in the Abramoff character?

The solution, on balance, is ... balance.

And now Lovitz's balanced life may have been see-sawed by this exceptional performance that may have film-goers clamoring for more.

For now, he keeps life level with running a career -- stand-up guy Lovitz is loving his foray into stand-up -- and a club, as well as keeping active in www.seriousaboutpsoriasis.com, a condition with which he he is on personal terms.

Lovitz has the tough skin to take on critics, but can he handle the soft side of applause? He certainly can handle a kibbitz, offering a review of his film by his own animated TV alter ego, "The Critic."

Will "Casino Jack" run the table?

"This film," he says, tongue in chic and in the voice of his past cartoon creation, "does not stink!"

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