That The Gambler was released at Christmastime (after premiering at the AFI Fest) suggests that Paramount expected the Academy to take notice. In return, they got middling reviews (just 47% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing) and unremarkable financial returns. It’s at once fitting and a bit unfortunate.
Unfortunate, because it’s not a bad film. It’s pretty well-directed, the acting is solid, and on the whole, it’s a decent watch. Fitting, because it wastes most of its cast, adds up to little, and ultimately shows no reason for existing (and because it plays into some tiresome stereotypes, but we’ll get back to that). It’s not a bad film. It’s just not that good either.
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) has problems. Once a promising novelist, he now works as a literature professor, but he’s disillusioned with his students and with himself. He’s also a compulsive gambler, and the film begins with him getting into debt with illegal casino owner Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing) by losing heavily at blackjack. Loanshark Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) lends Jim money to gamble with, but Ji, loses this as well, seemingly indifferent to anything other than the act of gambling.
Eventually, Lee tells Jim he has seven days to pay up, and Baraka begins applying pressure on him as well, not just to pay up but to convince his student, basketball player Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), to fix a game. Jim would blow them all off, even if it meant catastrophe for his long-suffering mother Roberta (Jessica Lange), but when the safety of Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a student of his who knows of his gambling and has begun to fall in love with him, is threatened, he finally embarks on a scheme to clear his debts and make a fresh start, but he’ll need to borrow once again, from ruthless gangster Frank (John Goodman).
The Rotten Tomatoes consensus on the film argues that it suffers from comparisons to the 1974 film (with James Caan in the lead) which it remakes. That struck me as odd, not least because I didn’t realize the older film was all that well remembered or highly regarded (Ebert’s 4-star rave notwithstanding). I haven’t seen it myself (though I just bought a copy, so I soon will), but I’d have to imagine there’s something more there than there is here.
The Gambler has a strange lack of weight to it, and much of that comes from its failure to illuminate Jim. I’m not totally sure if the issue is with William Monahan’s script or Mark Wahlberg’s performance, but Jim is too cold and detached (and frankly, too obnoxious) to be really sympathetic, and ultimately, acts just sympathetically enough (mostly where Amy is concerned) to ruin the purity of his nihilism. Why he takes the risks he takes, and why he is in large part so indifferent to the consequences, is left unexplored.
That might be less of an issue if what happened to him was more interesting, but what does happen is mostly predictable and/or hard to swallow. Roberta bails Jim out and threatens to cut him out of her life; he loses it all and seems glad to be rid of her. Amy falls in love with him, even after he singles her out in class–yes, to say that she is a genius, but the experience would still be rather humiliating–for no real reason. Hell, the IMDb (in reference to the ’74 version) points out how ridiculous it is that anyone would stake this jackass after he’s racked up that much debt.
And what are we to make of Allen’s ultimate willingness to sell out? Is it supposed to be tragic? Cynical? Can we really tell, since Allen isn’t an especially well-developed character and exists mostly as a plot device?
Which brings up another, thornier issue: the treatment of the non-white characters. The thought that popped into my head initially was, “He writes the dialogue for the black characters as if the only black people he’s ever know were film characters”. I don’t really remember specific lines, but the dialogue for Baraka and Allen often felt like a white man trying to write “black”. It doesn’t reach the cringe-inducing heights of, say, The Green Pastures (but that film, for all its faults, is infinitely more sincere and memorable than this one), but it made it harder for me to enjoy the film.
Too bad, because if you just take it as a light piece of glossy entertainment, it does have its pleasures. Rupert Wyatt’s direction is really pretty good, from the gambling scenes which suggest a sort of seedy sophistication, to the looming graphics which tick down the days until Jim’s debt is due, to Jim’s cellphone gracefully drifting to the bottom of a swimming pool (so he can avoid Baraka all the better).
Greig Fraser’s glossy cinematography helps; the film has the kind of confident competence that would, with better writing, make the kind of film one can return to on a casual basis. Even then, it probably wouldn’t have been an Oscar contender (Wahlberg must have been trying to recapture the generically-titled success of The Fighter), but it would have been a film I could have championed.
Wahlberg commits himself to the role in some aspects: he reputedly lost a great deal of weight for shooting (and does look pretty scrawny), and is certainly convincing at making Jim a cold, arrogant douche…but whether because the script let him down or he just wasn’t up to the task, he doesn’t really make Jim any less of an enigma. When he seems to have something like a change of heart, we don’t really know why.
I do think the fault lies more with the writing, but Wahlberg can’t quite compensate for what the script fails to provide. My opinion of Wahlberg as an actor waxes and wanes–when he’s good he’s very good, but I think he’s something like a character actor in a leading man’s body–but he does about all he can with the material. The material simply lets him down.
Goodman’s role is comparatively small, but as he steals the show I’ll mention him next. From his great “fuck you” monologue (used in the red-band trailer) to the perfectly avuncular “Good boy” he mutters at the end, Goodman is delightfully nasty, giving the film the kind of character (in both senses of the word) it so badly needs. Monahan also gives him the best lines in the film, which helps; one could easily believe the film was made just for the sake of Frank. He doesn’t get quite enough screentime to qualify as an awards player, but he’s by far the best part of the film. (Kudos also to Domenick Lombardozzi as his henchman. He was fun.)
Lange has little to do; she’s effective, especially at communicating her intense frustration with Jim’s nihilistic attitude, but there’s not much to the role. And the way the film wastes Larson upsets me. After her great, passionate, heartbreaking performance in Short Term 12—which won her my Best Actress award for 2013–to see her wasted on this generic “love interest” part is disheartening. Again, Amy’s attraction to Jim seems to come out of nowhere, and exist solely for plot reasons. It’s really fucking annoying.
The only awards attention the film has received to date are two Black Real nominations for Williams, and to his credit, he does a good job with the rather by-the-numbers part he’s been given. Absurd as the character is–he essentially gives Jim the money on a whim–he gives a sense of slick, affable menace which is certainly compelling, if ultimately limited by the material. Kelley and Ing and the rest are decent, but unremarkable.
“Decent, but unremarkable” really sums up The Gambler, though. I’m not sure just how much potential there really was here, but there’s a weirdly unfulfilled quality to it which suggests time constraints or creative conflicts or some other compromising factors which leave us to contemplate the merely adequate end result.