THE GAMBLER Movie Review – Slick, Superficial, Cod-Philosophical Take on Addiction
Just this past summer, Mark Wahlberg did what many high-profile actors do: He appeared in a mega-budgeted, effects-driven tentpole, Transformers: Age of Extinction. While few would begrudge Wahlberg making a distinctly commercial decision to retain and/or sustain his marketability and bankability (it’s the nature of the Hollywood game), expectations are automatically raised when Wahlberg decides to headline a less commercial, a less marketable film like The Gambler, an update/adaptation of James Toback’s well-regarded 1974 drama. Unfortunately, the narrative changes made by director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and William Monahan (Body of Lies, The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven), undercut practically everything that made Toback’s film a memorable, mid-‘70s classic: Its pull-no-punches bluntness, directness, and bleakness.
When we first meet Wahlberg’s character, Jim Bennett, he’s driving up to a seaside estate, the location of a not-quite legal casino. Armed with wads of cash, Bennett bets and wins at blackjack. Quitting while he’s ahead, however, isn’t something Bennett can or wants to do Bennett keeps betting until he loses everything. For Bennett, it’s part of a pattern, a pattern that’s left him in debt to the tune of $240,000 to the impatient owner of said gambling establishment, Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing). Bennett also catches the attention of Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a mid-level loan shark. He borrows and promptly loses another $50,000. Lee gives him an ultimatum: Pay everything he owes in seven days or risk losing everything (i.e., presumably his life).
The seven-day time limit gives The Gambler minimal suspense and tension. Without it, however, The Gambler would be a seemingly endless series of overlong, over-indulgent, faux-philosophical conversations between Bennett, an associate literature professor at an unnamed Southern California college, and the various characters who enter his life, usually demanding the money he owes. At one point, he turns to another loan shark, Frank (John Goodman, a career highlight), a fearsomely bald, often half-naked man Bennett’s equal when it comes to talking (and talking). Bennett’s short-term plan involves borrowing from Frank to pay off Lee and Baraka. Even Frank, however, recognizes the high-risk, low-reward ratio of Bennett’s plan. Still, Frank agrees, but only on one condition, a condition Bennett initially refuses.
The Gambler segues from Bennett’s nighttime pursuits of the thrills of gambling to his daytime teaching gig. In rambling monologues to a semi-rapt, captive audience (his students), Bennett rails against the state of modern literature, his own personal failings as an author, the nature of genius (you either have or you don’t), Shakespeare (odd, since Bennett apparently teaches a modern lit class, not an Elizabethan drama one), and Camus (specifically “The Stranger,” a short, existential novel familiar to everyone who’s taken high-school English). He calls out two students, Dexter (Emory Cohen) and Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), for their gifts (they’re athletes), while singling out another, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), for her talents as a writer.
Bennett’s relationship with Amy unsurprisingly turns romantic, mostly at her instigation (she explicitly wants an “inappropriate relationship”), but he only weakly resists. Neither Wyatt nor Monahan, raise, let alone attempt to answer the questions of power, privilege, and gender Bennett and Amy’s relationship raises. Then again, Amy barely registers as a character. She’s more a repository for Bennett’s desires, up to and including a life of settled domesticity, than a standalone character with wants, needs, and desires of her own. That’s not atypical for a film centered around a self-destructive character, of course. It’s par for the course where masculinity and its discontents, here contrasting Bennett’s repeated repudiation of a boring, bourgeois life (and lifestyle) against the embrace, however problematic, of the exciting gambler’s life.
Wyatt and Monahan work feverishly to make the gambler’s life attractive, romanticizing Bennett’s choices, including his inability to talk anything except his own, inner truth, with little regard for the other side of the equation, the self- and other-destruction of addiction. Making Bennett a loner, without romantic or personal ties (at first) with the exception of a hard-edged mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), who’s bailed him out of multiple jams in the past, makes his addiction easier to accept, even embrace for audiences. It’s a far cry from the original film where Bennett’s analogue (played by a near-career best James Caan), repeatedly made self-destructive choices, up and including a wrenching finale that left him little, if any, room for personal redemption.
Giving Bennett a chance at redemption, a real chance, not an illusory one, is exactly where Wyatt and Monahan go wrong with The Gambler. Whether it was their choice or the studio’s (or a mix), it still comes off as wrong-headed and ill-conceived, especially a film ostensibly about gambling addiction and its consequences. Then again, it’s clear from the result that Wyatt and Monahan simply wanted to make a slick, superficial entertainment with a patina of faux-seriousness (to potentially woo Oscar voters), not a film that might challenge, disturb, or provoke audiences.