A film review by Craig J. Koban January 12, 2015

THE GAMBLER jjj
 

2014, R, 111 mins.

 

Mark Wahlberg as Jim Bennett  /  Brie Larson as Amy Phillips  /  John Goodman as Frank  /  Jessica Lange as Roberta  /  Michael K. Williams as Neville

Directed by Rupert Wyatt  /  Written by William Monahan

The job of the film critic, I think, is to relay what a film is trying to do and whether or not it has succeeded in those very aims.  

Reviewing a remake adds another layer of complexity, especially when oneís fond memories of the original film come to the forefront.  THE GAMBLER is, of course, a remake of the critically lauded 1974 James Caan film, which was a semi-autobiographical take on writer James Tobackís life.  Memories of the first film undoubtedly cast a large, omnipresent shadow over this new iteration, but unlike so many witless and lazily scripted remakes, THE GAMBLER makes a concentrated effort to not just simplistically regurgitate its antecedent.  Instead, it pays homage to the source material while intrepidly going forward with its own fresh take on the 1974 film.  That is, alas, what all good remakes should aspire to do. 

Yes, people place the Caan version on a very high and cherished pedestal.  Yes, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES director Rupert Wyatt, initially at least, seems like an ill fit for this type of genre film.  And, yes, Mark Wahlberg definitely doesnít have the same type of grizzled and cynically detached edge that Caan did before him in the lead role.  Yet, Wyatt himself keeps everything moving at a swift and assured pace while making THE GAMBLER a quietly stalwart and stylish drama.  He seems to know his way around the characters and the dicey moral conundrums they find themselves in.  Beyond that, THE GAMBLERís ace up its sleeve is William Monahan, who previously penned THE DEPARTED for Martin Scorsese, and his tough as nails, razor sharp, an uncommonly eloquent dialogue (laced with almost poetic usage of vulgarity) gives the remake an added layer of gritty, sinister, and lived-in character.   

 

 

Wahlberg plays a university literature professor named Jim Bennett that lives a seedy and self-destructive existence beyond the classroom in underground gambling clubs.  Heís a passionate and verbose lecturer, but his real obsession is his chronic gambling addiction, which has caused no end of disturbing Ė and potentially life threatening Ė trouble for him.  He even seems to take losing unpardonable amounts of money in stride, even though it means a possible death sentence to those he owes money to.  And he does owe hundreds of thousands to the Asian mob and a gangster named Neville (played with low key menace by Michael Kenneth Williams). Realizing that heís in one really tough predicament Ė and knowing that he canít pay off both parties at the same time Ė Jim turns to another crime kingpin, Frank (a sensationally effective John Goodman), which has added more treacherous financial complications for his life.   Making Jimís life grimmer is his estranged relationship with his mother Roberta (a fiery and headstrong Jessica Lange) and with one of his students Jessica (Brie Larson) that he finds himself falling for. 

THE GAMBLER is an intimate and reasonably engrossing chronicle of a deeply disturbed, troubled, and mostly immoral man thatís become sickeningly addicted to his gambling disease.  You kind of just want to slap Jim across the face: Hereís a man thatís educated, intelligent, has a respectable high paying job and affluent family, but he cares little for family or his career while engaging in nightly gambling sessions.  Heís so intrinsically damaged on a pure psychological level that he rarely even appears upset when he loses money.  Losing acts as a catalyst to help prop up his addiction.  Monahanís shrewd scripting understands all of this in its attempts to never soft-pedal the character or make egregious attempts make us like this man.  Jim is a selfish son of a bitch that lies, steals, and then lies and steals some more.  I love the fact that THE GAMBLER doesn't pathetically try to sugarcoat this cretin.  Everyone in this filmís world seems corrupt in one form or another, making the boundary between protagonist and antagonist cleverly and compellingly opaque. 

Casting is of the utmost importance here, and Wahlberg has been getting no end of critical flack for his performance in THE GAMBLER.  Once you get over the fact that he perhaps seems like an ill fit to make a plausible university professor with an intellectual chip on his shoulder, then Wahlbergís inherent strengths as an actor Ė when heís allowed to bring them to the forefront Ė shines through.  His intense, internalized, and low simmering raw edge that he brings to parts suits Jim rather well.  Wahlberg is also sensational at playing compulsive minded and unethical jerks that hurt themselves and those around them in equal measure.  Like the script, Wahlberg never goes out of his way to soften Jimís rough edges; he's a character that takes every seedy low road or path possible to get ahead, even if it means betraying his own mother.  Wahlberg will never replace the iconic James Caan, but heís confidently on-point throughout most of THE GAMBLER. 

The other performances are uniformly well rounded as well, especially Lange as Jimís heartbroken, but mad-as-hell mother than that displays years of internalized fury over her sonís carelessness with stone cold stares and precise body language.  John Goodman has never been as good in a film role in years as he is as Frank.  He plays him with such a coldly calculating and hypnotically frightening impassiveness.  Goodman also knows how to make Monahanís f-bomb riddled dialogue really sing with an impressive and imposing level of menace.  Some have commented that Monahanís dialogue exchanges and monologues seem almost too on-the-nose and obtrusively stylish.  Yet, in an age when so many countless films have cookie-cutter dialogue that sheepishly propels stories forward itís a most welcome relief to have words with a sophisticated weight and color to them. 

Of course, THE GAMBLER does have issues, especially a rather shoehorned in love story between Jim and Brieís student, which never really pays off Ė nor is it developed Ė as fully as it should have been (that, and itís never completely explained why a good natured girl like Jessica would spend her nights working as a cocktail waitress in a crime riddled Korean nightclub, not to mention why she even takes a liking to Jim).  The filmís final scene seems a tad too falsely optimistic, especially considering the story that preceded it.  Most of THE GAMBLER builds itself on not being audience friendly and there are instances when you really donít know whatís going to happen to Jim with all of his scandalously unethical choices.  This film deserved a deeply cynical conclusion to match its deeply cynical soul, but the ending here is not really earned at all.  It feels like a cheat. 

THE GAMBLER still works, though, as an effectively well-oiled and executed retooling of the 1974 original.  Wyatt also demonstrates his versatility here as a filmmaker in moving from a sci-fi action thriller to something more quietly rendered and measured.  I could also listen to Monahanís wonderfully crisp, lyrical, and stone cold dialogue exchanges forever.  THE GAMBLER wonít replace its forerunner, nor is it a better film than it.  It is, though, an uncommonly confident remake that establishes its own unique personality while echoing the treasured film that inspired it.  You should definitely ante up and see it

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