I am not a gambler. In fact, the few times that I have laid down money at a blackjack table or plunked coins into a slot machine, those actions have been accompanied by a feeling of utter queasiness – a mild horror at watching my money potentially vanish before my eyes. I don’t like casinos, I never go to Vegas, and it’s a culture I have no personal desire to participate in. But I’m very interested in a movie like The Gambler – and other movies about people who like to place bets, usually with high stakes – because I want to understand why people are drawn and in some cases addicted to this activity.
Sadly, The Gambler doesn’t give me any real insight into that. A remake of the 1974 film directed by Karel Reisz, written by James Toback and starring James Caan, the 2014 edition of The Gambler comes with a high-powered star in Mark Wahlberg, an A-list screenwriter in William Monahan (The Departed) and a terrific director in Rupert Wyatt, who resurrected a left-for-dead simian franchise in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and let’s not forget his brilliant The Escapist before that). Despite all this talent, The Gambler is slick, very stylish and entertaining to some degree, but feels empty – all surface and no substance.
Just as Caan did in the original, Wahlberg plays an English professor (named Jim Bennett here, as opposed to the original’s Axel Creed) who has a secret: he gambles relentlessly and he has amassed a staggering amount of debt with the illegal casino he frequents, not to mention a local loan shark named Neville (Michael K. Williams). And yet he keeps going; he asks the casino owner to stake him again and approaches another loan shark (John Goodman) about borrowing even more cash from him. Owing the casino $200K and Neville another $60K, he gets the cash to repay them from his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange) – only to blow it all over again.
Despite starting to get the shit kicked out of him on a regular basis and seemingly taking out his frustrations on his students by telling them that almost none of them will succeed at being writers, let alone human beings, he somehow starts a relationship with his best student, Amy (Brie Larson), who also happens to work at the casino that Bennett visits. And then there’s his friendship with another student, a star basketball player named Lamar (Anthony Kelly), who may provide the only way out for Bennett but at great personal cost to himself.
The biggest question I had watching The Gambler is why anyone in this movie takes the actions that they do. Bennett is an enigma, even more so than Caan’s Creed; he seems to get no pleasure or satisfaction out of gambling, even when he wins. The thrill of risk is not present on his face, in his voice, or his body language. Whatever existential crisis he’s dealing with, that pushes him further and further into self-destructive behavior, is masked behind Wahlberg’s performance, which he might think is channeling arrogance but comes across more as petulance.
That makes everyone else even more of a mystery since they keep doing everything they can to save his sorry ass. We don’t have to like the main character, but why does everyone else in the story want to go out of their way for him? The supporting performances are mostly good and quirky – especially John Goodman, sitting Jabba-like in his spa and dispensing wisdom that’s somehow both grave and hilarious, and Michael K. Williams as the inner city bookie who is surprisingly earnest and yearns to change his life. I would almost prefer to watch a movie about either of these guys instead of Bennett, the void at the center of the story into which the rest of the cast keeps throwing their good intentions for no discernible reason.
Equally hard to fathom is Amy’s attraction to the guy, which seems to come out of nowhere and only to serve the “love interest” part of the story. Larson is captivating to watch but given little of real significance to do except chase after the dissolute Wahlberg, who reciprocates by shouting at her even more and essentially allowing her to become collateral in his game of nerves with the sharks.
The film is wonderfully shot (by Greig Fraser) and there are a number of terrific individual sequences, plus as I mentioned already the performances by Goodman, Williams and others help us to keep watching. But for all its style and gloss, The Gambler leaves us with nothing at the end – no real insight into the character of Bennett or the compulsion that drives him, playing more as a one-note, nihilistic march toward catastrophe. Toback’s original script was semi-autobiographical and charged with a merciless sense of self-examination; this time around any such introspection would find very little inside this slick packaging. It’s ironic that Wyatt wrung more meaning and humanity out of a story about intelligent apes than he does with this one – whether by choice or not, The Gambler gives everyone involved very few cards to play.
The Gambler opens in theaters on Christmas Day (December 25).