Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson
There’s something wonderful about gambling on film. It’s dangerous, high stakes, full of risk and populated with self-destructive characters; it’s no wonder that writers and filmmakers have been drawn to these types since the grand old days of the western.
In updating Karel Reisz and James Toback’’s original film from 1974, director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Escapist) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven) have fashioned a film that looks good on the surface, but is revealed to be as shallow and empty as its central character.
Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a literary professor and gambling fiend whose high-stakes, high risks ways land him in hot water, leaving him with just seven days to pay off some hefty gambling debts to some very shady people.
The biggest problem The Gambler faces is that the script is so brazenly in love with its own profundity that it completely fails to make its lead character even remotely intriguing or compelling. Wahlberg does his best, but his character’s believability will most likely rely on your ability to accept Wahlberg as a professor of literature at a top California university. Scenes involving Bennett jumping about his lecture hall, lamenting upon his students the nature of “genius” feels so self-gratifying and self-indulgent, that one can’t help but roll the eyes at the film’s sense of its own importance.
While Wahlberg manages to remain watchable thanks to his effortless on screen charisma, his character is just far too shallow and vain to be intriguing. A terrific opening involving Bennett inside a gambling den shows promise, with Wyatt providing some much needed tension, but the film falters and fails to stay true to the grand promise of its opening. Instead, it prefers to lament us with existential meanderings, with very little in the way of tension or intrigue, resulting in tedious looks to one’s watch to check the time.
For her limited role, Jessica Lange is exceptional, but is on screen far too little to ever really make an impact and poor old Brie Larson – so wonderful in Short Term 12 – is given the utterly thankless task of the repository ‘damsel in distress’ who merely sits around not doing much.
The Gambler is a film that desperately wants to be a profound character study of a man on a path of self-destruction, but ultimately ends up falling flat under the weight of its own charmless vanity.
Despite Wyatt’s strong visual sense, the film never reaches the heights it aspires to. It’s not a complete disaster, but is equally disappointing because somewhere in there, amidst all the speeches and delusions of existentialism, is a good film just aching to get out.