The Gambler is a remake of the 1974 classic about a man with an addiction to gambling – to the point of endangering his life. In this version, a university professor gets in deep with three very deadly members of the gambling underworld. This version has a unique take on character that, just barely, allows for the possibility of a hopeful (if not necessarily happy) finale.
It feel like a bit of a cheat, but works pretty well for the balance of its 111-minute running time – and Mark Wahlberg gives one of his more complex performances.
Jim Bennett seems to have a gambling problem. We see him playing blackjack and getting up $80,000 by just letting his winnings ride – and then losing it all the same way. He gets a stake from Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) and doing the same thing again. Not only that, but he owes a Korean gambling overlord, Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing) a ton of money for exactly the same reason.
It seems that Jim might be a gambling addict.
Away from the tables, Jim is an associate professor teaching an English Literature course on the modern novel. His approach is somewhat less than engaging – eliciting laughter in odd spots before making it plain that they are, essentially, seat-fillers and only one of them has the talent, or genius, to even have a hope of becoming a real written. That includes him, too – his one published novel was well received critically but sold almost nothing.
That genius student, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) is someone we’ve seen earlier – waiting tables at a casino where Jim has lost a ton of money. Outside of seeing what she does to earn a little cash – and a couple of arguments about genius, ethics and Jim’s seeming disregard for everyone including himself, we never really get to know her. It’s a testament to Larson’s ability that she seems like something more than a plot contrivance.
When Jim gets in too deep with Neville and Mr. Lee, he approaches Frank (John Goodman), yet another underworld figure, about staking him to win enough to get out of the hole – and, possibly, save his life. By this point, he’s burned whatever goodwill he might have had with his mother to get the money to pay them but which he gambled away.
Eventually, Neville puts the squeeze on him to persuade an all-star basketball player in his class to fix a game to cover his debt. Jim doesn’t care for that idea because Lamar (Anthony Kelly) just might be the only person in the story who understands him – even if he doesn’t even try in class, frequently looking at his phone and texting…
Finally, it comes down to Jim making a deal with Frank that will, if it pays off, see everyone come out of the situation free and clear – and it comes down to a single play on a roulette wheel.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt from a script by William Monahan, The Gambler is a remake of a classic film starring James Caan. That film ended badly – very badly.
What makes Wyatt’s take on the material different is that Jim isn’t played as a gambling addict. Everything he’s doing is being done as a conscious choice – and it all ties back to an early scene between Jim and his dying grandfather. The upshot of it all is that Jim is, for whatever philosophical reasons, trying to tear his life down to zero so that he can rebuild it from scratch without any of the advantages that he might have enjoyed as a result of his family background.
Wahlberg plays Jim as alternately not giving a crap and desperately wanting not to. At one point, he asks Amy if she believes him when he says he’s not a gambler – to which she replies that she’s seen him be a university professor when he’s clearly not.
The Gambler works as long as Wahlberg is playing the contrasts between what Jim wants to do and what he’s trying to do. He can be incredibly glib, equally incredibly philosophical and seemingly fatalistic. He puts himself in harm’s way as deliberately as he tries to talk his way out of it.
Jessica Lange brings a wealth of disappointment to Jim’s mother, Roberta. When she gives him a quarter of a million dollars to get himself out of trouble she neither expects him to do that nor does care. She’s done her familial duty and has washed her hands of him.
Goodman brings a ponderous lack of dignity to Frank. When Jim wants to conduct business like gentlemen, Frank bluntly states that they need to do so in just the opposite manner (‘like idiots. We need to very, very stupid’). He is a ray of artificial sunlight in a naturally grey world.
Because of the choice to not play Jim as a gambler, The Gambler winds up with a hopeful, if not happy, ending that suggests Jim has achieved his goal and is actually ready to try to build a real life from scratch. Given the original material, it’s a bit of cop-out but not enough to ruin what is a pretty engrossing visit to a world that we should never want to visit for real.
Final Grade: B
Photos by Claire Folger/Courtesy of Paramount Pïctures