“Mediocrity is where most people live,” observes embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey, “L.A. Confidential”) as he rants to himself in the opening minutes of “Casino Jack.” Conveniently, the film itself — a biopic that meanders in tone between off-beat corporate comedy and tragic, high-stakes political drama — shares a street with the sad majority that Abramoff despises.

“Casino Jack”

At the Michigan
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First, some background for the not-so-well-informed. In real life, Jack Abramoff was once considered the most powerful lobbyist in Washington, an influence-peddler whose deep-seated political connections helped place Bush Jr. into the White House. At the same time, however, he and his hotshot partner-in-crime, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper, “25th Hour”), regularly bribed members of Congress and conned clients out of millions, using the money to invest in ventures like questionably legal offshore casinos. The eventual scandals caused a national uproar and forced the resignations of countless government officials. There’s no question that Abramoff is a villain — a crooked byproduct of our capitol’s seedy underbelly.

But the Abramoff we see in “Casino Jack” differs greatly from his commonly accepted public image. Spacey’s character, the product of Norman Snider’s (“Body Parts”) screenplay and director George Hickenlooper’s (“Factory Girl”) execution, is a lesson in inconsistent character development. At first, the man is the power behind the throne — the “super lobbyist” who flies private and eats power lunches at five-star restaurants. Then, he’s the deadbeat whose boss criticizes him for his sub-par job performance. Alone in the office, he’s a corny guy who quotes too many movies, a self-absorbed conservative who likes to “work out every day” and is “humbly grateful” for the gifts America has given him. But most offensively of all, he’s portrayed as the average Joe — a man who’s late on his mortgage payments but still wants to play philanthropist, a man who wonders whether what he’s doing is legal and justifies his actions by saying that it’s all “part of the bigger picture.”

Hickenlooper’s overall cinematic vision is as badly defined as Abramoff’s character. The true story of Abramoff is inherently dramatic — his actions set this nation’s political system back decades — but there’s also plenty of potential for dark comedy. The very fact that Abramoff managed to pull off such a massive conspiracy from offices minutes away from the FBI’s Washington headquarters is funny, in a shocking, “oh no he didn’t” sort of way. Instead of tastefully blending these two genres, à la Soderbergh’s “The Informant,” Hickenlooper crams them together like sardines. One minute, Abramoff and Scanlon are joking about their massive purchases and manipulating congressmen into hilariously inept statements on CSPAN. The next, Scanlon is crying his eyes out in a bathroom stall while Abramoff rushes to comfort his sobbing wife and vulnerable, fearful children. It’s a broken roller coaster, shifting from emotion to emotion in a manner that feels forced, manipulative and artificial.

Nevertheless, “Casino Jack” is salvaged by Spacey’s dedication. His character may work out every day, but Spacey delivers an on-screen thespian workout, presenting a perfectly timed performance that cuts through the unfocused nature of the script to deliver side-splitting scenes that almost manage to seem genuine. As an added treat, the movie includes the real Abramoff’s penchant for celebrity impressions, allowing us to bask in Spacey’s uncanny imitations of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Al Pacino. It’s some of this star’s most entertaining and impressive work since his Oscar win for “American Beauty.” It’s too bad that it had to come in such an indifferent movie.

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