Not many movies are able to capture the horror of gambling. It’s a nasty business that preys on everlasting hope — the next roll, the next draw will be the big one. I am reminded of a commercial in Singapore where a middle-aged man faces the camera and recites words of reassurance — “Don’t worry, I’ll pay you back and everything will be alright” — then cuts to the person he’s trying to persuade: His young daughter, fearful and hesitant, clutching her piggy bank. It’s a poignant reminder of what and who gambling destroys.
The Gambler, directed by Rupert Wyatt, takes this reminder and turns it into Hollywood’s attempt to make gambling a statement, not a vice. There is little logic in the way of the screenplay, which trudges forward and tries to make its protagonist a kind of wounded soldier who can’t help but keep going even when he knows he’s down. Like Denzel Washington in Flight (2012), Mark Wahlberg drives until he crashes, then drives some more.
Such characters are not easy to love. They require work and patience and a kind of tolerance not many moviegoers have. Give us a despicable cretin and we’d rather marvel at the action, the sets, the costumes.
The Gambler provides little distraction. The plot is thinly veiled and not as sharp as it should be. It should find kinks in the gambling chainmail and puncture them relentlessly, but it chooses instead to simply regard its hero, Jim Bennett (Wahlberg), who many times throughout the film resembles a rock star stoned out of his senses, caught in moments of time. How many of us, for example, really care about his day job as an English-lit professor? How many even believe it?
Wahlberg is a charming actor who is able to balance sharp wit with impish attraction. I enjoyed him in movies like The Departed (2006) and The Other Guys (2010), where his characters were focused and driven by external forces. He’s relatively good-looking and looks smart in a suit, but surely his agent must have advised him against playing a character who’s both a hardcore gambler and a part-time teacher, let alone a teacher who strolls up the lecture hall steps to be one with his students, and sprawls on the desk whenever he sinks into a fit of ambitious depression. As a fiend, Wahlberg is perfect. As a teacher who is meant to know the differences between “Othello” and “Macbeth”, he’d have better luck playing the student.
The plot centres around the usual Hollywood standby: A debt to be repaid within a given timeframe. This time the debt is $260,000 and the deadline is a week, and Jim has exhausted his loan resources. Whatever money he gets he wastes at the casino. He borrows fifty grand from Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams), a dangerous kindred spirit who enjoys the game from a distance because he has the money to. Jim owes a large sum to a Korean mob boss (Alvin Ing), who is more patient and understanding than he has any right to be. And John Goodman plays a loan shark with a fascination for Turkish baths. Then a subplot about an aspiring basketball player (Anthony Kelley) is thrown into the mix and the story gets jumbled up. I can’t say for sure what happens during the climax, because I lost myself on the way there, but there is consolation to be had in the fact that I didn’t much care.
For what it’s worth, Wahlberg is competent as a compulsive gambler with nowhere to go. Jessica Lange lends heartbreak as his mother. Brie Larson is given the thankless romantic task of looking forlorn and concerned about this tragic man and is then shoved into nothingness as the plot forgets her.
The Gambler is written by William Monahan, who also wrote The Departed. With that movie, he edged a lot of his characters to the brink of sanity and security, often nudging them over into sudden, extreme danger. His work with Jim Bennett here is more like a slow-release drug. It builds and builds and builds, but it takes so long to build that by the time the foundation is laid, the crowd has moved on to watch the next spectacle.
Best Moment | Lange helping her son out one last time, and receiving no gratitude for it.
Worst Moment | Every time Jim Bennett sets foot in his lecture hall. Wahlberg should never ever play a teacher again.