Coming off the unexpected mass global success of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, director Rupert Wyatt could have done pretty much anything he wanted. For some reason, he decided to use that freedom to helm a remake of James Toback’s first autobiography of self-destruction, ‘The Gambler’. It’s a tale with a meaty premise ripe for crime movie thrills and existential dialogue. Absolutely no opportunity for either is ignored, and what emerges from the flock of ideas flung at the screen is both too interesting to ignore and too frustrating to fully embrace. It’s a weird one to be sure, yet not particularly good, bad or memorable.
As you might have gathered from the poster or even the image atop this article, Mark Wahlberg plays the gambler in question, a guy named Jim Bennett. He’s a college professor and mildly successful author who has grown completely exhausted by life. Rather than bother to keep living it, Bennett decides to gamble it all away. First his own personal wealth goes, then he borrows significant sums of money from local loan sharks played by intimidating presences like John Goodman and Michael K. Williams.
The film has a built-in countdown structure racing towards the point when Wahlberg’s debts come due and presumably his death. Essentially, the character is in freefall, hoping to kill himself without personally pulling the trigger. Yet, as he marches along and alienates everyone with idiotic bets and cynical pontification, he spots one bright shining light in an incredibly talented young writer played by Brie Larson. Could she be just the thing he needs to be saved? Sigh… probably.
‘The Gambler’ isn’t just a remake of a 1970s cult film. The goal is to make a stripped down and dirty character piece as well as something that delves into existential themes stretching beyond the genre. That’s an admirable intent to be sure, but quite difficult to pull off, and this sloppy flick gets away from the director.
Wyatt’s acrobatic camerawork and the time bomb structure keep the film feeling consistently on edge. Williams, Goodman and the other villains remain suitably imposing and just eccentric enough to feel unpredictable. Those parts kind of work. The hefty thematic side of the flick is where things get tricky. Screenwriter William Monahan (‘The Departed’) piles monologue upon monologue pontificating to the point of tedium. This is the sort of movie where characters meet purely to talk at each other and express their thematic relevance to the script rather than having anything approaching an actual conversation. Monahan’s words move from intriguing to irritating constantly (almost at an Aaron Sorkinian rate), and the way he simplifies the concept of salvation down to a pretty girl is pretty lazy. As much as Wyatt wants the film to feel gritty like its predecessor, Monahan delivered a script far too driven by didactic metaphors to even remotely resemble reality.
From a writing standpoint, the film is too clever and ambitious for its own good at best, and indulgently lazy at worst. Thankfully, it still has much to enjoy. The premise is crackerjack and Wyatt knows enough about how to use a camera to make a series of monologues actually feel cinematic. The actors are a joy to watch while rambling through their words. In particular, Goodman and Williams’ knack for playing intelligent skuzzballs is on full display, while Mark Wahlberg gamely does everything he can to make the film work. Completely destroyed without vanity in one scene, snobbishly bratty in the next, and brilliantly intelligent the next, Wahlberg dives into a tough role headfirst and delivers one of his finest performances. It’s just a shame that the movie surrounding him isn’t really worth his efforts or Wyatt’s visual talents.
‘The Gambler’ is not necessarily a bad movie, but it went all-in on a risky bet that didn’t pay off.