– by Tom Munday
Gambling and cinema have similar addictive qualities. Gamblers and producers, more likely to suffer massive losses than phenomenal gains, take chances with every play they make. Audiences, like gamblers, are sucked in by the ‘majesty’ and ‘thrill’ of what said industries have to offer. However, both industries house seedy underbellies the high rollers do not want you to see. This comparison is the through-line Mark Wahlberg’s latest vehicle, The Gambler, hopes to get across.
Based on the 1974 James Cann-starring vehicle of the same name, The Gambler is a sprawling yet uneven dissection of everything around us. Wahlberg, putting his name all over this project, handed himself the task of luring us in. Indeed, from the opening frame onward, his pretty mug fits front and centre into almost every frame. Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a man with one eye on the prize and one on those after him. By day, Bennett, an English literature professor known for a best-selling novel, is a cynical monster. By night, his addiction to blackjack, roulette, and everything in between is handily fed. He, owing large chunks of cash to gangsters/loan sharks Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Lee (Alvin Ing), Bennett’s worldview could not sink lower.
Despite the troubles, his life is thrown for another 180 when one of his students, Amy (Brie Larson), catches him in action at an underground casino. Furthermore, his frustrated mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), keeps a close eye on his every move. With this many cards on the table, The Gambler plays all of them with care and precision. Adapting James Toback’s original script, renowned screenwriter William Monahan gives Wahlberg more to chew on after The Departed. Bennett’s first lecture sequence is a master class in snappy, insult-fuelled screenwriting. His style, cutting to the base of everything Western civilization has but will not hand out, delivers several laugh-out-loud zingers. The Wahlberg/Monahan keeps the narrative moving through each predictable twist and turn.
The opening scene contains the best and worst of this movie’s ingredients. In it, Bennett hits the table, insults the dealer, plays to attain a significant amount of money, and then makes an unfortunate mistake. On a technical level, the movie does its job amping up the tension. It builds…and builds…and builds. However, sadly, I had no idea what was going on. The movie fails to bring non-gamblers into its convoluted ‘action’ sequences. Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is obviously infatuated with the original. Shifting the action to Los Angeles, this city-at-night love letter is peppered with peculiar narrative choices that distract from the overall narrative. The first half – taking on Bennett’s erratic, overcompensating tone – pulls you along for the ride.
This character-study narrative, delivering boatloads of snark and solstice, is elevated by Wyatt’s eye for subtlety and visual stimulus. Some shots, depicting simple things like a phone sinking to the bottom of a pool or people walking through a university campus, signify Wyatt’s multiplicities understanding of movement and interaction. Like with his previous effort, the real and surreal blend to form a unique and expansive vision. The gambling sequences, lit with subdued visual flourishes and crisp cinematography, make you envy Bennett’s rich-for-rich’s-sake lifestyle. In addition, certain camera movements amplify some characters’ most eloquent ticks. Wyatt, stretching between genre and stylistic choices, could be the next Danny Boyle or Steven Soderbergh.
Ultimately, Wahlberg’s lends a swath of charisma and dynamism to this otherwise unlikeable role. His post-rock hairdo, skinny frame, and slick suit, adding to the overall allure, exemplify the character’s slimy, tunnel-vision quality. Adapting to the philosophical speechifying, his interactions with Lange, Williams, and Larson add glowing sparks to this cynical character-drama. Lingering above everyone else, John Goodman nearly steals the show as a vicious, foul-mouthed criminal with a taste for the F-word. The Gambler, resting on Wyatt and Wahlberg’s shoulders, is a passion project crafted with punch and verve. Credit belongs wholeheartedly to Monahan for turning temptation and greed into qualitative traits.