Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Premise: A remake of the 1974 film. A compulsive gambler continually borrows money from his wealthy mother and from various loan sharks, getting himself further into debt.
What Works: The Gambler takes place in between the polite society of academia and the underground realm of illegal gambling and loan sharking. Those two worlds don’t necessarily fit together in a single picture but the filmmakers of The Gambler make it work. The movie is filmed with a muted color palate so that the classrooms and academic offices complement the dingy settings of other scenes. The filmmakers achieve a similar duality in their title character, played by Mark Wahlberg. The actor typically plays blue collar tough guys and he does that kind of role well. When Wahlberg has been cast as intellectual or white collar characters he usually does those parts less well. In The Gambler, Wahlberg is cast as a man who works as an English professor but who spends his nights gambling away his money at underground establishments. Wahlberg and the filmmakers are able to merge these two parts of the character. It’s revealed that not only is he an English professor but also a one-time successful novelist who has lost faith in his day job and the teaching scenes have some darkly comic moments. Wahlberg turns what should be an unsuitable role into one that fits his skill set as an actor. The other notable performance of The Gambler is provided by John Goodman. The late period of Goodman’s career has seen him emerge as a major character actor, often appearing in supporting roles where he delivers memorable performances. In The Gambler Goodman plays a loan shark who is Wahlberg’s only hope of repaying his debts but the loan comes with deadly terms. It’s a testament to Goodman’s skill as an actor that he is able to be far more threatening than any of the other criminal characters in this movie even though he never engages in any sort of physical violence. The script for the 2014 version of The Gambler was written by William Monahan, who had previously been credited on The Departed and the 2010 film Edge of Darkness. Monahan fills his script with witty dialogue that has an authentic masculine toughness and he’s able to do that without the machismo coming off stupid.
What Doesn’t: The Gambler runs into trouble when the filmmakers force elements that don’t fit. Wahlberg’s character has a budding romance with one of his students, played by Alison Brie. The bookish female college student attracted to the troubled older man is a cliché but the problem with this character is that she’s used as an out for Wahlberg’s character. This is the major flaw of The Gambler: it’s regard for the title character’s problem. Mark Wahlberg’s character is an addict. This is clear from the way he compulsively spends his money and the way in which he prioritizes his addiction above the wellbeing of himself and others. However, the filmmakers provide a softened, almost romanticized, version of addiction. As the story proceeds, Wahlberg’s character gradually gets himself deeper and deeper in debt and puts his family relationships and the lives of two of his students in jeopardy. Rather than following the character’s compulsions to their logical conclusion the way Requiem for a Dream did or portraying the ongoing struggle for sobriety as in The Lost Weekend, the filmmakers of The Gambler cop out with an overly simplistic and disingenuous conclusion. Perhaps bowing to commercial pressures or unwilling to kill off a major movie star, the filmmakers of The Gambler give themselves over to a love-conquers-all finale. It is a misplaced conclusion that does not match the momentum of the story.
Bottom Line: The Gambler has an awful lot of good stuff in it but for a movie that fancies itself as a throwback to 1970s-era grittiness, the film’s edge is dulled by commercial concessions. It’s a satisfactory piece of entertainment but it could have been much more.
Episode: #524 (January 11, 2015)