Film Review – The Gambler
What’s the over/under on The Gambler being worth your time this Christmas? I guess that depends on what you’re expecting from it. Don’t be deceived by the misleading trailers promising an Ocean’s Eleven like time at the movies. Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) doesn’t care about having the upper hand. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care about much of anything. Let’s call it suicide by blackjack.
The Gambler sets the bar high from the get-go with a 10 minute opening sequence in a high stakes underground casino. Bennett exchanges a glance with a cocktail waitress before settling in at his second home: the blackjack table. He throws down several thousand and wins immediately, leading us the audience to believe he’s either a card counter or wunderkind. Turns out he’s neither. He simply doesn’t give a shit. This becomes clear when, in the same scene, he doubles down and loses it all. Broke but without missing a beat, Bennett takes an inadvisable loan from L.A. kingpin Nevillle (The Wire‘s Michael Kenneth Williams). Neville seems to recognize the sheer recklessness on display but is intrigued. Whether you’ll share his intrigue depends on how you feel about self-destructive trust fund babies who want to watch the world burn. Myself? Not a fan.
A remake of a 1974 James Toback film I’ve never seen, The Gambler revels in its protagonist’s lack of sympathy. As Bennett, Mark Wahlberg gives us an admirable if squirmish rendering of a man who’s the lost ability to care. It’s impossible to tell what thrill he derives from his actions as his reactionary shots are so expressionless. The only time he seems to display any emotion at all is when he’s moonlighting by day as a college professor and demeaning his students publicly.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and written by William Monahan (The Departed), The Gambler fancies itself a commentary on the privileged. Bennett has never had to worry about money and therefore has no respect for it. An especially infuriating scene sees his well-to-do mother (Jessica Lange) coming through in a pinch to lend him the exact amount he needs only to smash cut to him carelessly squandering it. Even the threat of lumbering loan shark Frank (a brilliant John Goodman) fails in getting Bennett to break a sweat. The only flicker of emotion we’re witness to at all is when the life of his love interest is threatened.
Oh yeah, the love interest. Brie Larson, so so good in last year’s Short Term 12, plays the ever-smitten Amy, a gawky but sexy-on-the-inside student of Bennett’s. Larson is a true talent and it’s sad to see that talent so utterly wasted here. Her only motivation is to appease and it’s kind of despicable.
The true saving grace here is Goodman. As Frank, Goodman exudes an intimidating presence so effective it will leave you shifting in your seat. Sadly, he’s only in a handful of scenes. But boy, what scenes they are. More of this and less of Wahlberg spouting pseudo hippie bullshit while endangering the lives of those around him and we might have something here. Somebody call my agent.