Review: The Gambler
PLOT: A literature professor (Mark Wahlberg) finds himself in debt to various underworld figures for $240,000 as a result of his hardcore gambling addiction.
REVIEW: Its always a shame when a film youve been looking forward to underwhelms. Rupert Wyatts THE GAMBLER looked, on the outset, to be exactly the kind of gritty crime drama thats like catnip to me. I was so excited to see it I checked out the original 1974 James Toback/James Caan film a few months ago. Whoops. Big mistake. While not without its own flaws, the 1974 film (actually directed by Karel Reisz but written by Toback) was a sobering, thoughtful, and eventually moral look at gambling addiction, which strikes me as possibly one of the most dangerous addictions to have. This remake is just a watered-down version that hits all of the same beats as the original, only judges its nominal hero far less harshly, and emerges an oddly amoral film with an ending that borders on being ludicrous.
His Jim Bennett is arguably the most repellent hero of the year. With him playing an addict, it would have certainly been understandable if he came off as a jerk when needed, but even when hes at his worst the movie constantly tries to excuse his behavior and make you like him. His mother, played by Jessica Lange, emerges as a shallow and judgmental figure, thereby making it ok for him to get whatever cash he can out of her in a sequence where she withdraws a large sum from her bank to help him out. His nominal love interest, a college gal (played by Brie Larson), is similarly two-dimensional, making her seem like little more than a girl with a crush being taken advantage of by her professors, although again, the movie wants you to root for them to get together.
If Wahlberg had at least been charming or charismatic in the part, this might have all made sense. Rather, he struts around trying to look cool in his dark suits and omnipresent sunglasses. Usually, Wahlbergs an underappreciated guy, but theres very little he can do to humanize this badly overwrought character, who has to spout off writer William Monahans murderously self-indulgent dialogue. Everyones so prone to monologues here that it becomes comical, and the speeches arent as brilliant as everyone involved seems to think they are.
More than anything, its Monahans script that kills THE GAMBLER, and while hes certainly a distinct voice, it pales considerably to the naturalistic dialogue and plotting of the original film which, if it was initially imperfect, comes off as a virtual masterpiece compared to this. As for Rupert Wyatt, he tries hard to give this a kind of Martin Scorsese-lite style, with a non-stop soundtrack of hits (including the increasingly popular use of a cover of Radioheads Creep, M83, etc) and deep cuts (points for using a track from SEARCHING FOR SUGARMANs Rodriguez). Wyatt probably could still make a hell of a film given the right material, but THE GAMBLER just isnt it.
However, the film is salvaged somewhat by a few of the supporting performances. Michael K. Williams brings his loan shark character a degree of complexity thats par for the course for him, and if anyone manages to make Monahans dialogue roll off the tongue, its him. John Goodman is also very effective as a shady character Wahlberg goes to as a last resort. He only has a handful of scenes, but theyre the best in the movie. It was also very nice seeing none other than George Kennedy pop up in a cameo as Wahlbergs dying grandfather.
If THE GAMBLER didnt have such a high pedigree; I would have gone much easier on it. Truth be told, its not that bad. Its just that with that director, writer, and cast, THE GAMBLER should have been terrific. Rather, its just another melodrama with an ending that feels incredibly misjudged. Of the award contenders coming out before New Years, this is the one big letdown.
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