Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a literature professor, with a sideline as a high stakes gambler. When his past debts come back to haunt him, it seems that Bennett is digging himself deeper and deeper into the red. With loan sharks out to get him, Bennett has no choice but to play to win.
The Gambler, directed by Rupert Wyatt, is a remake of the film of the same name starring James Caan which, in turn is based on the Dostoyevsky novel. Mark Wahlberg steps away from the Wahlberg-ian roles of his past to play a verbose and intelligent literature professor. Wahlberg does well with the rhythms and seeming arrogance of the character, but it is in the softer, more vulnerable scenes that he falters.
Brie Larson plays Amy, a young student who starts off as the love interest in the piece but quickly descends into nothing more than a vehicle for exposition. Jessica Lange brings the frosty as Bennett’s wealthy but withholding mother, John Goodman has a great speech about being in the right position to tell people to fuck off, and Michael Kenneth Williams turns up as a loan shark and gangster.
William Monahan’s screenplay attempts to show how an intelligent person becomes bored when there is nothing to challenge them, and resorts to high stakes gambling for thrills. The trouble is that Bennett more often comes off as pretentious than an everyman, and makes decisions that the audience does not understand, for the sake of creating tension, and showing just how someone can come from privilege, but still end up self-destructive and despondent. Brie Larson’s character is quickly sidelined and, although John Goodman has a terrific monologue or two, all the to-ing and fro-ing between different debtors, and a rather clunky payoff, mean that The Gambler sinks rather quickly.
As director, Rupert Wyatt creates an interesting and engaging first act for the film, but soon loses his way as Bennett becomes embroiled in a murky underworld. Plotlines run across one another without any apparent reason, and motivations for the cast are exceedingly unclear. It is only a matter of time before The Gambler sinks under the weight of its own ambition, and audience sympathy is quickly lost.
In all, The Gambler is a film that tries to be something that it’s not. The film lacks the dark dealings of Monahan’s The Departed, the slick touch of Ocean’s Eleven, as well as motivation, clarity and audience empathy. Walhberg may be up for trying new challenges, and while he certainly tries here, The Gambler is not the film it is trying to be, nor is it coherent, or remotely entertaining. Instead it is frustrating, muddled and unsatisfying.