If only this guy had his own Rain Man. Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson and Academy Award winner Jessica Lange star in The Gambler.
Director – Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay – William Monahan
Based on characters created by James Toback
Producer – Mark Wahlberg, Robert Chartoff, Stephen Levinson, David Winkler & Irwin Winkler
Rated R for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a literary professor who has a hidden life as a high-stakes gambler. A long streak of bad luck has left him in massive debt to loan sharks Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Frank (John Goodman). As he keeps gambling away the loans in an attempt to pay back everyone he owes, the deeper the hole he dug gets and the more his life is in jeopardy.
Based on the 1974 original film of the same name, starring James Caan in one of his greatest performances, The Gambler now stars Mark Wahlberg as the title character. You’d think with a film brought to you by the director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a solid start to an enjoyable franchise – and the Oscar-winning writer of The Departed, starring Wahlberg as well as John Goodman, Brie Larson and Jessica Lange would make for a great crime film, but unfortunately the result here is so underwhelming.
The problem starts with Wahlberg and his character. Wahlberg’s given strong work before (Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Departed and The Fighter), but he comes off bland here. There’s no complexity brought to Jim Bennett like what Caan gave to his self-destructive Axel Freed, and Bennett’s gambling addiction (which the film never once brings up) lacks any drive or motivation, acting more like a plot device solely there to keep the story running. It doesn’t help Wahlberg’s case that he’s been given a role that’s nothing more than a one-note, uninteresting, unlikeable prick who back talks and belittles everyone he comes in contact with, including his loan sharks. He’s clearly not the brightest bulb in the box.
And we’re supposed to be pulling for this guy.
Coming from screenwriter William Monahan, who created many complex characters within The Departed (yes, a remake, but never underestimate how hard it is to adapt someone else’s material), you expect better. The supporting characters contain much more depth, but they’re supporting acts for a reason, and they’re backing up a shallow, narcissistic lead that never develops over the course of the film.
At some point, you’ll probably switch gears and just start rooting for the loan sharks.
Character flaws like these could maybe be forgiven a little if director Rupert Wyatt gave this film any grit or style. The gambling scenes lack any intensity or insight; the climactic basketball game should have you on the edge of your seat, yet Wyatt just present each and every moment in bland fashion.
Plus, it’s hard for us to feel like this guy’s life is on the line when we don’t care to begin with.
Giving this film at least some sign of life are the supporting characters, all of whom are much more interesting than Wahlberg’s role. John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams are both fantastic as Bennett’s loan sharks who give him way more “fool me once shame on you” opportunities than he deserves. The lovely Brie Larson does a fine job as Jim’s student who’s a literary genius and can see through his load of crap from a mile away, and veteran actress Jessica Lange has a few good scenes as Jim’s wealthy, long-suffering mother.
To think Rupert Wyatt passed on the much better Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sequel to helm this disappointingly stale remake that lacks the character depth the original had. Although it features a strong supporting cast that all do their best to salvage what they can of this film, The Gambler leaves them all hanging by offering a dull, empty character study of a protagonist who, by the end of the film, you could care less whether he makes it out alive or not.
I give The Gambler a C- (★★).