On paper, The Gambler possesses a peculiar allure and excitement. The modern-day remake of a James Toback classic with three established talents collaborating in their prime suggests you’re in for a treat. This is the unfortunate assumption that doesn’t pay off as the audience are left feeling they bet big on a hollow gambit. Mark Wahlberg assumes the role of conflicted, detached Lit Professor Jim Bennet, who gets in deep with the sharks for the sake of absolute victory or failure (yes, no other reason than that). Director Rupert Wyatt, who impressed with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and The Escapist (2008), teams up with William Monohan for this preposterous and contrived spin on the original.
Monohan, having penned little of note since 2006’s The Departed, discharges self-admiringly smug dialogue over the entirety of Toback’s screenplay, rendering this remake in much need of humility and purpose. You never truly accept Wahlberg as the award-laden professor from a privileged background, clad in designer suits and driving state-of-the-art cars, with the most irrational and offensive chip on his shoulder. The source of this irritation most likely lies with the mediocre writing of Monohan and less with Wahlberg’s performance. Not to say that Wahlberg convinces with his portrayal of Jim Bennet. It’s fair to say he delivers his most charismatically wooden performance since The Happening (2008). All the hollow, perplexed looks and naively delivered lines frustrate. He cannot help but drag you out of the film – constantly bewildering and amusing the audience into indifference – as you awkwardly watch him search for bullish sophistication.
The supporting cast however provide worthwhile distraction from the disappointment of its key talent. John Goodman and Michael K. Williams effortlessly inhabit their characters, collectively portraying the devilishly cool, canny and callous underbelly of Los Angeles. Jessica Lange too, despite receiving no more than five minutes screen time, commandingly grounds the film for the audience as Wahlberg’s fretful and ultimately dejected Mother. Brie Larson‘s Amy seems shallowly constructed, with little room to breathe as our Professor’s love interest. While a smart and gutsy ensemble is constructed, it can’t hide the scripts weaknesses.
Prior to release, The Gambler may have been regarded by many as Wahlberg, Monohan and Wyatt’s rushed attempt to deliver a mature, awards-friendly film. Post-release, many will be perplexed by its inability to commit either commercially or artistically to itself, indecisively straddling the two. This makes for disjointed, uncomfortable viewing. With an exhaustingly eclectic soundtrack – that ranges from the perfunctory, Pitchfork-friendly tracks to the essential jazz and rock of old – a lack of purpose and tension pervades the entire 111 minutes. The inconsistent tone of the piece is not aided by Wahlberg’s pointless monologues where he waxes lyrical on every scholarly subject from Shakespeare and Victory to Genius and Love but can’t seem to apply this astuteness to real life.
Ultimately, this is a mess of movie, one that simultaneously strives for substance through its characters and lengthy dialogue only to offer superficial and inconsequential wisdom through its meandering plot and uneven third act. The gambling sequences are the most accomplished, with flash smash and grab editing that grows anxiety and keeps you surprisingly on the edge of your seat until the cards or dice drop. Unfortunately, that’s all this film leaves you with… a flashy, empty slog.