The plight of the desperate man, searching wildly for money, escape and sex, is the core of film noir. The Gambler–a remake of a well regarded but little seen 1974 James Caan drama–is set in present day. While it’s clearly taking place in contemporary Los Angeles, it’s the sort of visual amalgam of the gritty 1970s and the gloss of modern day.
Mark Wahlberg plays the title character, Jim Bennett, who we see entering an underground gambling club. He walks in with enough to pay for a new car and walks out with empty pockets. The thrill of being able to play his hand appears more potent than whether he wins. Like a classic noir anti-hero, he doesn’t care if he wins or loses, lives or dies, just as long as he stays in the game. The problem here is that there’s no reason for the audience to care, either.
Wahlberg plays the character with the expected what’re-ya-gonna-do-about-it toughness that makes the character seem impenetrable rather than vulnerable. It’s like staging Death of a Salesman with Jason Statham as Willy Loman. We gradually learn why the protagonist is so emotionally removed from his current scenario, though it doesn’t make him seem any less invincible.
By day, Bennett is one of those college professors who terrorizes his students, but fills them with ideas and inspires them with tough love. One such pupil (Brie Larson) is smitten, though Bennett is at first too self-absorbed to notice. After being cornered by his rich mother (Jessica Lange) and a dangerous loan shark (John Goodman, wonderfully cast against type), Bennett suddenly faces the size of his gambling debts and the out-of-control nature of his addiction, not that he seems to notice.
Director Rupert Wyatt (who helmed the terrific Rise of the Planet of the Apes) has fashioned a great-looking drama so slick, the style allows the audience a safe distance from Bennett’s broken soul. Not that we needed any help with this, as Bennett does and says everything in extremes and displays a sociopathic detachment from everything. The character is fascinating, as is watching Wahlberg, one of the most together, focused and talented actor/entrepreneurs of his generation, play a raging hot mess. Yet, the character’s “who cares” attitude weighs the movie down.
Despite an on-screen countdown, telling us how many days left before the debts are due, and the revolving door appearances of scary loan sharks, there’s no suspense. We should feel there’s more at stake than a smart but emotionally out-to-sea schmuck getting either flush or cold-cocked.
Goodman and Lange are sensational and give the story an immediacy it lacks. Larson follows her breakout performance in Short Term 12 with another turn so natural, you’ll never catch her acting.
I enjoyed the scenes of Wahlberg verbally hounding and tantalizing his students with grand ideas, as well as the big gambling sequences, though other films have done all of this before. Unlike the self-destructive main characters in Leaving Las Vegas and Shame (admittedly different movies about different addictions/diseases), The Gambler lacks the tragic, poignant sense of a lost soul, tumbling further down the rabbit hole.
There’s an obvious fondness for ’70s-era movie grit, as well as a Michael Mann-style coolness but we still don’t feel the movie any more than Bennett flinches at danger. Wyatt has staged the film with confidence and precision, with great care to the soundtrack and editing, but it’s too much of an exercise. A movie where the gambling addict is threatened to have “every bone in his body” broken shouldn’t make us want him to hit the gambling table again.