The Gambler (2014) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing, Emory Cohen, Domenick Lonmbardozzi
Small role: George Kennedy, Andre Braugher
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay: William Monahan (based on the 1974 film by James Toback)
Review published December 27, 2014
A less bulky Mark Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Lone Survivor) plays college lit professor (and washed-up novelist) Jim Bennett, a self-destructive loser who has all but alienated himself from his coddling wealthy family, mostly because of his penchant for blowing lots of their money on risky gambling plays. He owes a Korean mobster (Ing, The Final Countdown) plenty of cash, and then borrows from an even more dangerous crook (Williams, The Purge: Anarchy) to make another gamble in order to pay off the debt, to no avail. Now with two deadly criminals putting the squeeze on him to collect by the end of the week, but the closer he gets to escaping his situation, the more he does to foul it up.
The Departed's William Monahan adapts the classic James Toback script of the Karel Reisz-directed 1974 film of the same name starring James Caan, mostly to mixed results. A nice cast and punchy visuals can only do so much when there isn't much of a rooting interest in the characters or story, which meanders lackadaisically, despite life-and-death situations presented throughout. It's also a very talky, quasi-existential piece in which just about every character offers up a pithy monologue on who Jim is and how he should journey through life.
Instead of a man fighting for his life, Monahan tries to up the ante by making it about a man fighting for his soul, but given that the only happy ending that can be offered is that he makes enough money to cover his debts and perhaps gives up gambling, there seems to be little investment on our part, especially when gambling Jim seems OK with getting every bone broken in his body if he can't make it. Even threats to his family, girlfriend, and students aren't enough for him to not try to let it all ride on the gambling floor. And that girlfriend, played by Brie Larson (Short Term 12, Don Jon), serves no purpose in the film whatsoever except as a pawn to be used to hurt a man who doesn't seem to care if he dies. She's built up as someone of significance (narrative laziness: she's not only his star pupil, but also works at the very same underground casino he squanders his money on), then is barely seen in the second half of the film.
One might charitably call The Gambler more a character study than a suspenseful thriller, but given that this is a character who we really don't care to know much about, it's not easy to maintain interest in his plight. Going against his macho image, Wahlberg isn't one to throw a punch in this film, I suppose to his credit, but he does like to wax philosophically a bit much about every aspect of his existence, seemingly using his classroom to continue to battle his own mental demons in a way that makes one wonder how any of his students could come out of a class having learned much about literature.
As in the classroom, so it is in this film, in which its theme is presented, expounded upon by its characters grandiloquently, then leaves us walking away from it like Jim does from every blackjack table he comes into contact with -- empty-handed.
©2014 Vince Leo