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“Casino Jack,” Reviewed

“Casino Jack,” Reviewed (photo)

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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.

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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