‘The Gambler’ Review: Mark Wahlberg Wins By Losing

By  · Published on November 11th, 2014

The Gambler 2014 Class

Paramount Pictures

When people talk about how great the ’70s were for character-driven stories, Karel Reisz’s The Gambler should be, but hardly ever is, included in that conversation. Screenwriter James Toback’s script was a deeply personal depiction of his own gambling addiction, and the leather-tough James Caan disappeared into the atypical role of a guy who could easily be pushed around.

Forty years later Mark Wahlberg subverts his own tough guy image in director Rupert Wyatt’s dense, subversive and surprisingly meta remake of Reisz’s original picture.

This is a rare remake that stands on its own two feet, which is immediately established at the start of the film. There’s a reason why even the characters’ names have been altered – Axel Freed (James Caan) is now Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg).

The original and this remake are almost entirely different beasts, despite some familiarity. Although a modern retelling is typically expected to be slicker and safer than its original source, this story remains faithful to its prick of a protagonist. Bennett is, by all means, an unlikable person. Not only because he has a serious gambling problem, but because he’s a character without a filter, someone who thinks he’s telling the truth but who, more often than not, is really spouting loads of bullshit.

On the surface, The Gambler is about a literary professor who has to pay well-earned debts in seven days. He owes a few hundred grand to Neville (Michael K. Williams), Frank (John Goodman) and Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), and while that might be small potatoes for a man who comes from a wealthy family, there’s a reason why Bennett’s rich, dying grandfather leaves him with nothing: he’s a scumbag. Beneath the layers, it is a careful exploration of the self-loathing and self-destruction that follow from addiction.

Yes, this is a movie that dares audiences to cheer for its hero. People may applaud Bennett when he wins a hand at blackjack, but then the sadness seeps in after his victory. A win in this movie always comes with a loss. Bennett is an addict, a man starving as much for lows as he is for highs. There are scenes where his life is potentially on line, and yet Wahlberg couldn’t act more nonchalantly about the character’s predicament. Why? Because he doesn’t want to play anything safe in his life.

He needs to move fast to whatever outcome. The opening credits show Bennett speeding around Los Angeles, and it’s a perfect introduction. He also never wastes his own time or the time of others, a notion established best by his hilariously candid lectures to his students. It may seem odd to picture the meathead from Pain and Gain rocking skinny tweed, but Wahlberg, like Caan, disappears into this movie.

Bennett soon develops a relationship with Amy – a student played by an immensely charming Brie Larson. According to him, she’s the only great writer in his class. When Bennett asks her why she doesn’t make herself stand out more, she responds that staying in the middle is the safest place to be – a life lesson nowhere near Bennett’s book.

This is unquestionably a figure from the mind of screenwriter William Monahan. His characters are far more often defined by what they don’t say than what they do, which certainly applies here. At one point the professor confesses to Amy that he wants a real home and a real life, but what he’d really prefer is a punch in the face, something to remind him he’s human garbage. He’s suicidal, so he’ll embrace the pain.

Wyatt brings these ideas and themes to the screen exceedingly well. There’s a powerful scene in The Gambler where Bennett is gambling at a casino with the money his mother (Jessica Lange) gave him and Wyatt fast forwards through his bets. Of course this choice provides brevity, but more than that, it shows how much the character is missing out on a real life. He could be spending this time with Amy, but instead chooses to ignore the world around him. There’s very little that’s flashy about Wyatt’s direction here, but certain stylistic flourishes – shots that isolate the damaged Bennett especially – make The Gambler a subtle but arresting visual representation of addiction

With the film, Wyatt strikes the balance his protagonist is unable to achieve. Bennett has only ever written one (failed) novel, and Amy asks him whether it was a story he wanted to tell or one he thought an audience would want to hear. This movie achieves both aims. It’s a story that plays by its own rules, and yet will work for the mainstream. The bittersweet ending, which is unfortunately played to M83’s “Outro,” represents this balance best. The Gambler is a deceptively populist picture, holding its true nature tightly to its chest. Whatever joy is taken in this movie quickly turns to despair.

The Upside: Wahlberg delivers some of his finest work; Monahan’s razor-sharp script; Wyatt’s efficient filmmaking; John Goodman has two infinitely quotable scenes; Jon Brion and Theo Green’s atmospheric score; changing the setting from New York to Los Angeles serves this retelling well; contains some strangely effective flashbacks; isn’t afraid to take its time

The Downside: There are a few overused and frustrating song choices

On The Side: The 1974 version of The Gambler is currently available on Netflix Instant.

The Gambler hits theaters December 19th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.