“The Gambler” is a remake of the 1974 James Caan film. 40 years later, Mark Wahlberg, who holds similar A-list status as Caan did back then, takes on the title role of literature professor by day; high-stakes gambler (and loser) by night. Whether he’s starring in a quality movie (such as last year’s “Lone Survivor”) or a complete disaster (such as last year’s “Pain & Gain”), Wahlberg is usually able to deliver a respectable performance. He does have a few good scenes in “The Gambler”, but an unfocused script that relies way too much on dialogue results in “The Gambler” being one of the holiday season’s weakest releases.
Wahlberg plays college professor Jim Bennett. Sound familiar? Wahlberg played John Bennett in “Ted” and will reprise the role in the upcoming “Ted 2”. (Maybe they’re brothers!) As the movie begins we see Bennett, who comes from a very wealthy family, being emotionally crushed at the hospital bedside of his dying grandfather. This event, we are supposed to believe, is what sets him on a wild gambling spree that gets him into deep financial trouble. He wins, sometimes big, at the blackjack tables, but just doesn’t know when to quit. The same can be said for director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and his the lengthy, drawn-out scenes of Bennett lecturing his students at school. These are more painful to experience than actually being in school.
Bennett borrows money to cover his debts and continue feeding his habit, first from Korean tycoons and then the African American mafia led by Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams). And he has only seven days to get a total of $250,000 (and growing) to pay everybody off. How’s he going to get the money? Will he win it at a casino, get it from his feisty mother (the underused Jessica Lange), deal with notorious loan shark Frank (images of a shirtless John Goodman will haunt me for days), or just tap out? On top of all of this “drama”, Bennett starts a relationship with one of his students (played by Brie Larson).
Even though the film is called “The Gambler”, there are very few scenes of actual gambling, and therefore not much suspense. Instead, Wyatt continuously shifts the tone from light to dark, gangster drama to psychological study, to family relationship study. He even tosses in a sports gambling subplot involving another of his students (the completely unrealistic and clumsily staged college basketball game in the final half hour is laughable). “The Gambler” doesn’t know what it wants to be: a slick, cool thriller with a retro, 70s feel, a profile of a man battling addiction, or an inside look at the world of illegal gambling.
And there are brief scenes of Bennett in his childhood, but they’re never fully developed. It seems like Wyatt concentrated more on the proper placement of his music than developing characters and a compelling story arc.
Goodman is only in four scenes, with a similarly sarcastic performance to those he gave in “Argo” and “Flight”, but with a villainous twist. The role here is not as genuine as the other two, but he does bring this film some much-needed energy. The rest is provided by a quite impressive amount of running Wahlberg does late in the film. I’m sure, after seeing a screening of “The Gambler”, Wahlberg wished he had run from this project a lot sooner.
Maybe the makers of “The Gambler” should’ve listened to Kenny Rogers when this film was in development, by folding and walking away.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Gambler” gets a C-.