We meet Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a public restroom. He’s brushing his teeth and looking at himself in the mirror when he suddenly bursts into a monologue, a statement of principles brimming with anger and defiance. “Mediocrity,” he tells himself, “is where most people live. It is the disease of the dull. I will not allow the world I touch to be vanilla!”
This is how the Abramoff biopic “Casino Jack” begins. It throws down the gauntlet and announces that it will not fall into the trap of so many bland ripped-from-the-headline biopics, and you have to admire the fact that director George Hickenlooper had the chutzpah to put himself and his film out there like that. But sadly, “Casino Jack” just doesn’t measure up to its own yardstick of success. Despite some decent performances and a great true story, it is a vanilla mediocrity. Certainly watchable, but also instantly forgettable.
If you follow the news or saw Alex Gibney’s Abramoff documentary from earlier this year you will not be surprised by the story. Hickenlooper focuses primarily on Abramoff’s final years in Washington, and fills in the earlier details with chunks of clunky expository dialogue. Despite his status as the highest paid lobbyist in D.C., Abramoff is always on the hunt for more cash, “liquid,” as he calls it. Along with his partner Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper), he tries to squeeze exorbitant fees from Native American tribes and purchase a controlling interest in a fleet of casino cruise ships with a sleazy mattress salesman (Jon Lovitz). As his corruptions mount, the financial pressures surrounding him rise. Structurally, the movie falls into the category of films like “Bad Lieutenant” about corrupt people desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the falling dominos. The difference here is that we already know the film’s outcome ahead of time, which certainly diminishes the suspense.
The movie does give you the sense that Abramoff is a very complicated man; in real life, at least, he certainly didn’t succumb to the disease of the dull. He’s deeply committed to philanthropy work, but he’s also obsessed with materialistic comforts and symbols of status. He’s an Orthodox Jew but he seems most comfortable in the presence of conservative Christians. In insisting on his innocence – or at least his lack of guilt in excess of other Washington lobbyist — he possessed either a remarkable amount of defiance or a remarkable amount of delusion. And the role is perfect for Spacey, who’s always been great at portraying characters who’ve forgotten how to read their own moral compass.
But Spacey never quite congeals all those personality facets into a coherent whole. If only there were more moments like that opening monologue, that really gave him a chance to chew on the complexities of this man. Otherwise, most of “Casino Jack” just goes through the biopic motions with Cliff’s Notes versions of Abramoff’s schemes around Capitol Hill. A final confrontation between Abramoff and the senators who raised charges against him bears some interesting implications about the intersection of politics and media culture, but it’s also burdened by some incredibly didactic “shame on you, sir!”-style dialogue.
The director of “Casino Jack” is George Hickenlooper, who tragically passed away of an accidental drug overdose last October at the age of 47. Hickenlooper was obviously a man who loved to tell stories from real-life. Before he made biopics like “Factory Girl” and “Casino Jack” he was an extremely accomplished documentarian; his “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is one of the best documentaries ever made about film. I liked his repeated use of low angles that frame people with desks or tables peeking into the lower foreground of shots; his camera is literally “under the table.” But that’s one clever motif in an otherwise underwhelming film. Mediocrity is where most people live, and what a lot of movies are.