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The Gambler (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

The Gambler

The Gambler


Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Anthony Kelley, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jessica Lange, Emory Cohen, Andre Braugher, Domenick Lombardozzi, Richard Schiff, Leland Orser, Alvin Ing, Anthony Kelley, Griffin Cleveland, Josiah Blount, Shakira Ja’nai Paye, Melanie McComb and George Kennedy.

Screenplay by William Monahan.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  110 minutes.  Rated R.

The 1974 James Caan drama The Gambler is hardly considered to be one of the classics of the Seventies – arguably Hollywood’s most artistically fertile decade ever – however it was critically respected, became a minor hit and has gained something of a cult following over the years.  Therefore, it is not a complete surprise that the gritty original would be dusted off and given a new-millennial update.

The original The Gambler – very loosely based on the short story of the same title by Dostoyevskystarred Caan as Axel Freed, a hip literature professor from a well-off family with a model-pretty girlfriend and a major gambling problem.  Freed is a major fuck-up in many ways, smart and good looking but ashamed of his rich Jewish family, so he sort of makes an art form of being the black sheep.

We meet him losing $44,000 to a gangster and every time it appears that he has worked himself out of the hole he has dug for himself, his low self-esteem and lack of self-restraint has him blow the money which could save him.  However, if you were willing to look hard enough you realized that in some sick way Freed wanted to totally hit rock bottom (and you really did have to dig as then first-time screenwriter James Toback did not quite have the writing skill at that point to get across all of his points.)

If Caan’s gambler was something of likably conflicted loser with self-loathing issues, in the new film, Mark Wahlberg plays the character more as an empty cipher, a smug and emotionally dead jerk who is too stupid to take advantage of the way-too-many lifelines that are offered him.

However, you never really get the feeling that he is having a dark night of the soul, he simply doesn’t seem to care too much about anything that is happening.  Also, for some reason, the self-loathing Jew aspect of the character has been completely written out, Wahlberg’s gambler has the newly-Anglicized name Jim Bennett.  Bennett, unlike his predecessor Freed, does not appear to have the self-awareness to even realize why he acts so recklessly.  He just seems to do it because: well, why not?

Bennett is supposed to be a beloved cool professor in his university – though frankly his lectures appear to be dancing on the fine line between rant and mental breakdown.  He regularly singles out students in his class for passive-aggressive praise or outright dismissal.  He gets into harrumphs when the students don’t get how brilliantly tortured he is and throws the entire class out early.  He also gets involved in an extremely dysfunctional affair with a young co-ed in his class (Brie Larson) and starts a very odd mentorship with a full-scholarship basketball superstar (Anthony Kelley) who has no interest in learning about literature.

No professor could act as unprofessionally and irresponsibly as this without getting fired, even if he did have tenure.

Oddly, the new Gambler does not exactly acknowledge the most basic fact of its lead character – that the man is a deranged gambler – instead trying to make it seem that Bennett’s mammoth bad luck and massive debts are all part of his existential angst and spiritual emptiness.  His problems have him disinherited by his dying grandfather (George Kennedy).  He borrows money from loan sharks to pay off other loan sharks, and amazingly ungratefully takes money from his finally fed-up mother (Jessica Lange).  Of course, every time he gets his hands on the money that could possibly save his ass, he heads right out and blows it on games of chance.

Eventually, the audience can’t help be wonder whether Bennett is past redemption – or for that matter why we should care if he gets out of the massive mess that he has gotten himself into.

It doesn’t help that Wahlberg is hopelessly miscast and really doesn’t have the acting chops to give Bennett the subtle shadings that would make him seem like anything other than a complete self-absorbed asshole.

Wahlberg’s complete wrongness for the part is particularly obvious when he has to do scenes against three savvy character actors as the colorful gangsters who hold his life in the balance.  Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman and Alvin Ing all act circles around Wahlberg, to the point that you barely even notice that he’s on screen when he is with them.

Unfortunately the movie is hindered by William (The Departed) Monahan’s extremely verbose screenplay.  That is not to say that the writing is not periodically disarmingly intelligent and pithy, however it is to say that no one – but no one – really speaks like this.  These aren’t people having conversations, they are people dropping soliloquies upon each other.  This kind of dialogue might – just might – work on stage, but it’s distractingly stilted onscreen.

In the end, the new Gambler does not even have the courage to follow the original film into the true depths and misery of a gambling addiction.  In the first film, Axel Freed crashes and is left wallowing in desperation.  The new one does not exactly have a happy ending, but you could argue at least that in the end Jim Bennett sort of breaks even, leaving the audience to wonder if he has learned anything from all the drama he has needlessly put himself through.  I tend to doubt it.  And if he hasn’t learned from his mistakes and will probably be repeating them, why have we been watching him for almost two hours?

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: April 28, 2015.

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