I haven’t seen the original 1974 version of The Gambler, starring James Caan, but I gather it is supposed to be much better than this remake directed by Rupert Wyatt. There are several problems with the newer version, but the overall package is inoffensive, and it’s the kind of film that’s ready made for one of those nights when you don’t want to think too much. It plays out exactly how you expect a movie starring Mark Wahlberg as a degenerate gambler to play out: his character, Jim Bennett, is reckless with other people’s money, makes decisions that put his nearest and dearest at risk, is very rude to dealers in casinos and generally acts like a spoilt, ignorant brat, but because this is (a) Mark Wahlberg and (b) a Hollywood movie Bennett ends up redeemed and rewarded in numerous ways before the end credits roll and who really cares about anyone else anyway?
The character’s sociopathic behaviour is apparently born of frustration. He has issues with his parents, for starters, though the screenplay by William Monahan only pays lip service to the mental anguish: his dad upped and left many years before and his relationship with his mother, played by Jessica Lange, is strained to breaking point. Also it’s possible he behaves like this because he may or may not be a tortured genius who is currently stuck in an unfulfilling job: when he’s not placing huge bets at the blackjack table Bennett is a writer and, rather implausibly, a showman masquerading as a literature professor. He treats his lectures as if they’re a cross between an hour of therapy and the kind of stand-up performance that used to be delivered by Bill Hicks, though in no way are the scenes in question as good as that sounds. Let me think it over. Yeah: it’s actually more like watching someone attempt simultaneous impressions of Tom Cruise’s Frank TJ Mackey from Magnolia and Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poets Society. But again nowhere near as good as that sounds.
It’s all pretty standard: filmmakers know that scenes featuring people gambling offer instant dramatic tension, and there are plenty here, with stacks of cash and, eventually, life or death consequences at stake. You’ve seen it all before: lingering shots of the roulette wheel as it comes to a halt, the right cards being flipped over at the right time, the broken man staggering out of the casino at dawn, etc. etc. Bennett’s self-destructive streak means he is in too deep, and he runs up huge debts with three people – played by Michael K. Williams, John Goodman and Alvin Ing – who will kill him if he doesn’t pay up in seven days. Monahan gets a little tied up with all the financial comings and goings, and it’s hard to follow the amounts Bennett has paid and the amounts he still owes at times, but conveniently all three debtors want their money on the same day, which simplifies the plot even if it is unlikely.
Bennett has lost his mojo at his place of employment, too, but he does take an interest in a few students: Anthony Kelley and Emory Cohen both play kids on sports scholarships with little or no academic aptitude, while Brie Larson is the star pupil who conveniently also works in a high roller casino frequented by Wahlberg’s Jim. Larson’s is a thankless task, given that it’s a one-dimensional ‘love interest’ role, and I don’t understand what her character sees in Wahlberg’s, unless for some reason she’s convinced that the dark suit he sports throughout turns him into a mystery. Their affair is certainly lacking in romantic chemistry, and I wonder whether Wyatt knew this when deciding upon his ending, which keeps the pair apart and cuts to black just before they meet. Elsewhere Goodman and Lange stand out, partly because they both get to deliver expletive-laden monologues, though sadly they only appear in a few scenes.
In truth The Gambler does very little for me, but it’s paced well and – as I’ve already said – it’s the kind of film that can be used to kill a couple of hours if there’s nothing else on or at hand (though when is that ever the case in this day and age?). It does at least make me appreciate the other gambling film of note that came out earlier this year, Mississippi Grind, even more than I did at the time of release. Grind didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel, either, but its characters are far more intriguing and its road trip was much more fun to watch than Bennett’s flouncy, over-the-top, pretentious lecture theatre schtick.
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt.
Written by: William Monahan. Based on The Gambler by James Toback.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, Michael K. Williams, John Goodman, Emory Cohen, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing.
Cinematography: Greig Fraser.
Editing: Pete Beaudreau.
Music: Jon Brion, Theo Green.
Running Time: 111 minutes.