The Gambler (2014)
Dir: Rupert Wyatt
It was an uphill climb but Mark Wahlberg’s new film may place him into the most improbable on-screen profession of his career. That’s right, The Gambler has overtaken high school science teacher (The Happening) and inventor (Transformers 4: We’ll Keep Making These As Long As You Keep Paying) in terms of incredulity as it asks you to believe that Mark Wahlberg’s character Jim Bennett is a tenured English professor. Your ability to suspend disbelief upon learning this could strongly correlate to how much you enjoy the film.
The Gambler, a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, boasts a fine pedigree. Director Rupert Wyatt has previously revived the Planet of The Apes franchise with 2011’s installment Rise, while writer William Monahan (The Departed) here adapts James Toback’s original screenplay. The film opens promisingly enough, with a scene of a gaunt and run-down Wahlberg as Jim at his dying grandfather’s bedside. His grandfather imparts some words of wisdom before departing to Valhalla, leaving Jim a grieving wreck. He copes by driving to a luxe casino and compulsively losing thousands over the course of a long and dark night of reckoning. When day breaks and he leaves deeply in debt the audience sees him go to his actual job – a literature professor at an unnamed California college. This is the first of many possible turning points where the deck of cards that Wyatt has built threatens to come crashing down.
A self-destructive and possibly suicidal gambling addict, Jim is in deeper that anyone knows with over a quarter million dollars owed to two separate but equally deadly gangsters. He has a week to pay and each day begins with a title card to clarify time left and heighten tension. Over the course of the week a slew of characters are introduced amidst Jim’s downward spiral in this sun-soaked California noir set within the alluring world of high stakes gambling. The Wire‘s Michael Kenneth Williams is appropriately menacing as the loquacious gangster Baraka, while the Korean foe (Alvin Ing) doesn’t register as strongly. There’s some underwritten female parts, with the fiery Jessica Lange leaving an impression as Jim’s embittered mother and the fantastic Brie Larson given little to do as Jim’s star student/love interest. Stranger still is the fact that some name actors (Andre Braugher and Richard Schiff) appear in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them one scene cameos that barely register.
The actor that fares best is John Goodman as big-time bookie Frank, a shaved-headed bear of a man that lectures Jim on how to get enough “fuck you” money and forms a begrudging affinity for the problem gambler. The movie is comprised largely of lengthy conversations (that can feel like sermons straight from the screenwriter) that occasionally gel, interspersed with gambling scenes that are familiar (Hard Eight and Rounders come to mind) but effective nonetheless. The one constant is that whenever Goodman is onscreen the movie’s pulse quickens and you’re forced to sit up and take notice. If only he were more of a central character. Instead we have Mark Wahlberg as the lead, playing against type as a man of letters. Wahlberg is actually mostly believable and wryly funny, with a haunted and world-weary look reminiscent of Boogie Night‘s Dirk Diggler during his coked out phase (he even has the same feathered hair!). Despite the fact that The Gambler is a contemporary film it in many ways feels like it’s catching up with a broken (albeit smarter) Dirk Diggler who’d continued his descent into hell (although here that hell is more existential). In both films there’s even a slow pan into Wahlberg’s solemn face as he hits bottom.
Other elements feel borrowed as well – The Gambler features great but familiar music cues. There’s the creepy children’s choir version of “Creep” by Radiohead (employed to great effect in The Social Network‘s trailer) used here in another scholastic setting, “Crucify Your Mind” by Rodriguez (from Searching for Sugar Man) starts as a diagetic ringtone then morphs into the soundtrack, and the cinematic music of M83 (which previously appeared in ads for Rust & Bone, Cloud Atlas and numerous other films) is used on a number of occasions, including the climactic ending. The sense of deja vu is not necessarily a bad thing, but it will likely draw some unfavourable comparisons.
The Gambler‘s unconventional structure (despite being a remake) generally works in its favour, until a formulaic ending that recalls (spoiler!) Sideways in its final scene. It’s unsubtle preachiness can be a drag at times but at least it’s going for something unique. Wahlberg may have been miscast here but he tries his level best. Sometimes it seems like he’s a kid in a grown-up’s clothes (doubly so because of his baggy suits) playing at being an adult, which doesn’t help the illusion that the movie struggles to cast. That being said, the rest of the acting is generally fine with Goodman being the clear standout. The tennis courts and backroom gambling dens of Southern Cali look great on film, highlighted by sumptuous cinematography that contrasts light and dark well (and doesn’t bother with overused filters). It’s hard to shake the feeling like it was cobbled together from better films, leaving The Gambler as a well-intentioned misfire with some redeeming elements that provide a quill in Wahlberg’s cap as he tries to stretch and grow. Maybe next time he can play a nuclear physicist?