Release: Christmas Day 2014
Written by: William Monahan
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Huh. So that’s what it feels like to be completely ripped off by a movie.
I mean, completely. Like, I know it’s dumb to go all-in on a movie that has received so little attention and marketing for something that features the likes of Marky-Mark, the great John Goodman and a rising star in Brie Larson, but come on. Am I this much of a sucker? I just bought into a game that keeps on taking without ever giving back. I hate the dealer. Dealer always wins.
The lovable Mark Wahlberg drops 61 pounds (!) in order to get into the depraved character of Jim Bennett, some twit who spends his nights gambling and his days professing his love for literary genius in front of a bunch of disinterested college students. The legit job is the one he enjoys less, though he does enjoy holding this appreciation for elite novelists over his students, wielding his intellectual superiority as if it were some shield designed to protect him from the stabbings of his accusers, those who don’t give a shit about English lit. But as Rupert Wyatt is about to explain, there are better tools for Jim to rail against society with.
Like a gambling addiction! In my mind, shelling out one’s salary on a game of Black Jack on a regular basis, only to lose more often than win, constitutes a legitimate disease, and Wahlberg’s Jim is very sick. For nearly two hours he seems to acknowledge all the ways in which this lifestyle is wrong for him and yet continues to revel in it as he sinks into almost insurmountable debt, eventually having to be staked by the shadiest player in the room, some crazy named Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) just so he can play his way out of his predicament. His actions throughout this entire film reveal a man who is not only incapable of change, but immune to it. I openly embrace characters who are severely flawed; there’d be virtually no entertainment business (or compelling literature) without them. I also don’t much mind when they aren’t dealt detailed development, so long as the lack of character development doesn’t take away from the ultimate experience.
Jim Bennett could have gotten into a three-way with Brie Larson’s Amy Phillips and his own mother (Jessica Lange) and still failed to find the motivation to change his ways. And that scene might have actually been interesting. But The Gambler insists on impressing (I’m wondering if depressing is an appropriate synonym here) those who have gambled their way into the theater with how much it enjoys the smell of its own stagnation. Jim goes from owing money to the charismatic Neville, to convincing Asian mafia — there’s always a higher power to answer to — that he’s worth their trouble, to taking a trip to the bank with mom for a casual $240,000 withdrawal. That’ll be in cash, please.
And that’s of course before he comes up against the film’s actual threat, a nakeder-than-life John Goodman as Frank and his tough-guy “cabbie”/right-hand man Big Ernie (Domenick Lombardozzi). Excluding Larson, who is woefully neglected in a role that reduces her to eying Marky-Mark’s character rather than becoming a flesh-and-blood character (Larson is far more effective as a texting addict in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s amusing Don Jon), supporting performances feel inspired. Inspired to the point where the supporting roles outweigh Wahlberg’s. When you have supporting roles more memorable than that of your lead, particularly when the lead comes in the form of a major player like Mark Wahlberg, you have a problem.
So I came out on the losing end here. That’s alright; the dealer wasn’t my type anyway. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned here, and I know for a fact there are a few things to become fixated on in Wyatt’s overhauling of the apparently far superior 1974 thriller with James Caan. Things like the fact that while Jim Bennett remains a perpetual screw-up, he attracts the attention of beautiful women like April. Nonsensical. The phenomenon of how we always buy into the star power of Mark Wahlberg without thinking for a second about the material that will surround him.
Recommendation: The Gambler turns out to be a thriller without the thrills; merely a good-looking production lacking much in the way of originality, enthusiasm or particularly strong acting. Though the latter is much less of an issue, the repetition of Jim Bennett’s gambling problem becomes more than a little wearisome as this story doesn’t force any action or compelling reason to stick by his side. Wahlberg is likable, sure, but this character — and this very disappointing film — are not so much. I do not really recommend.
Running Time: 111 mins.
Quoted: “You’re born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel.”
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