Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing, Emory Cohen, George Kennedy
Running Time: 111 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The Gambler isn't about gambling. Nor is it necessarily about a gambler, as the protagonist doesn't even consider himself one. These are pluses since he's really bad at it and few things are less exciting to watch on screen than gambling. The film begins with such a sequence, but it's only a false alarm. The action won't be taking place at the craps tables since it's clear early that this is a character addicted to losing. He hates himself, his life, his job, and on top of it all, he's a selfish jerk who irritates just about everyone he comes in contact with, especially his own mother. With a debt finally too big to pay, he's looking at the very real possibility his days are numbered, which at least saves him the trouble of taking his own life.
There's so much to appreciate in this remake of the 1973 film starring James Caan that you can't help but root for it to cross the threshold into greatness. It's not your typical studio effort, or at least hides that it is for enough of the running time that you start to doubt its true intentions. For a significant stretch, Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt appears to throw away the rule book, instead choosing to make a dark character study about an irredeemable loser. He's the kind of doomed figure you'd find in the 70's films from which this takes its inspiration. And you really haven't seen anything until witnessing Mark Wahlberg give a Shakespeare lecture. Scenes like that and the killer soundtrack would be worth the price of admission, but luckily there are many more pleasures to be had in an effort that's gone somewhat misunderstood, though not entirely. It may slightly disappoint, but it's rarely safe and never boring.
English professor Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) has a compulsive gambling addiction that's fed by his trips to an underground ring operated by a man named, Lee (Alvin Ing), to whom he now owes $240,000. He has exactly seven days to pay it off or face certain death, which doesn't seem to bother him in the slightest. Making matters worse, he owes another $50,000 to loan shark, Neville Baraka (The Wire's Michael K. Williams), who witnessed his losing streak and actually seems to have some pity for him.
Wedged between asking his wealthy mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange) for the money or hitting up another loan shark, Frank (John Goodman), it's a toss-up who's scarier. As the seven days count down, he also forms a bond with one of his students, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a gifted writer who catches a glimpse into Bennett's secret world and finds herself strangely intrigued. But the clock keeps ticking for him to get the cash and clean up the mess that is his life, before someone ends it.
If Mavis Gary from Young Adult took a job teaching at a major university, she'd be Bennett. It's just that kind of repulsive, self-loathing attitude that spews out whenever he steps in front of a class. He wrote a semi-successful novel years ago and still seems angry about it, even if it's tough to tell whether he's unhappy with the content or the fact that he wrote one. What we do know is he'd rather be anywhere else and isn't shy about expressing it, sometimes resulting in philosophical musings and humiliating public lessons for his students. He's the kind of person from which even high praise manages to come off as back-handed insults.
Three students grab his attention. There's the aforementioned Amy from Ohio who Bennett singles out as a writing prodigy because either she is, he doesn't want her spilling about his gambling activities, or he just wants to sleep with her. It may even be a combination of all three. Then there's top ranked tennis player Dexter (Emory Cohen) and NBA bound hoops star Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), the latter of whom is in danger of failing unless he puts away his phone in class. For sound reasons that come to light later, these lecture scenes take up a considerable amount of time and are too well-written and compelling to do anything other than completely hold your attention. Had the whole film taken place in this lecture hall, I wouldn't have complained, but there's still the matter of that debt.
As Bennett falls in deeper, he finds new ways to self-destruct and alienate everyone around him. Mid-film there's this great scene in which Amy basically propositions him to leave his job and run away with her. And there's this feeling of urgency and excitement in not being exactly sure where this story's going, regardless of anyone's familiarity with the original. While the route it takes is almost disappointingly conventional considering what's come before, the flare with which Wyattt executes it keeps us hooked, as does Wahlberg's performance as a compulsive risk-taker struggling with a real illness that's long passed the point of addiction.
Having dropped a substantial amount of weight and sporting a shaggy mop for hair, Wahlberg would seem as poor a casting choice for a college English professor as he was for a scientist running from the wind in The Happening. So it ends up being a good thing he's not even attempting to play one, but rather getting inside the head of a character more disgusted by the idea of this guy as a teacher than we are. It's why those scenes play so well and Wahlberg deserves respect for again proving he's willing to try anything, regardless of the consequences or whether he necessarily "fits" the part on paper. Even given the critical drubbing Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan's (The Departed, Edge of Darkness) script received, it's understandable why Wahlberg felt couldn't pass up the opportunity to tackle such a dark, conflicted character when it was initially presented.
John Goodman may actually not be the best thing in the movie since there's still a lot more to appreciate, but he does almost walk away with his slimy, intimidating performance as Frank, whose downright scary presence casts a large shadow over the proceedings. Michael K.Williams is nearly as memorable in an entirely different way as the charismatic Neville while Jessica Lange bites into a surprisingly meaty role as Bennett's mother, who partially blames herself for his sorry state.
While Brie Larson's Amy has been criticized as merely a throwaway love interest for Bennett, a deeply developed romantic sub-plot could have curbed the refreshing sense of spontaneity the story contains. The only downside is that asking us to really care about their relationship at the end feels somewhat disingenuous as a result. The most we get to know her is in that initial classroom exchange, but it really is entertainingly written. Larson captivates as usual in the limited role, further confirming suspicions that Jennifer Lawrence probably needs to watch her back in the years ahead, even if this didn't give her a lot to do. But she does get the film's best musical moment, as we follow Tracy across campus with Pulp's "Common People" blasting through her ear buds. With ideally placed additional selections from Rodriguez, Ray Lamontagne and Billy Bragg as a hazy supplement to Bennett's state of mind, the soundtrack should rank near the top of anyone's list for the past year. I guess they figured Kenny Rogers would be a little too on-the-nose.
Considering so much of what leads up to the final act doesn't make this any more a crime thriller than Ridley Scott's baffling The Counselor, it's somewhat of a disappointment that this pulls back instead of diving headfirst off a cliff, giving us the crash landing it's earned and we deserve. The funny thing about it is how certain scenes and sequences are so memorable and superbly filmed by Wyatt that it's almost frustrating that key moments surpass the total of those parts. Certain scenes stay with you and resonate, while the entire experience leaves almost as quickly as it arrives. You're never quire sure what it's trying to say because it's so deliriously crazy and moving in a bunch of directions at once.
The ending isn't nearly as nihilistic as the original's, but stylistically effective in its own right and kind of great. You don't see this type of conclusion anymore because most filmmakers are probably too afraid it will look ridiculous. It doesn't, and that's taking into account that the groundwork wasn't even fully laid to earn it. Just think if it was. Unceremoniously dumped into theaters Christmas day, the bland marketing campaign behind The Gambler promised another thoughtless remake looking to cash in. Even taking all its problems into account, it's anything but that.