Everyone involved with The
Gambler deserves an A for effort, beginning with Mark Wahlberg, who sought
to make an original and atypical film—a far cry from a Hollywood movie-star
vehicle. The result is intriguing, and never dull, but ultimately less than
satisfying. For all its stylishness and smart use of Los Angeles locations, director
Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan have fashioned a doom-laden,
existential drama with a cipher at its center. (I should add that I wasn’t a
fan of the 1974 original, written by James Toback and directed by Karel Reisz,
which starred James Caan, although it is held in high regard by some critics.)
Wahlberg plays a compulsive gambler who bets beyond his
means and deliberately tempts fate in order to lose. He lives in a shadowy
world of illegal gambling clubs that stay open all night. He takes tremendous
risks in dealing with dangerous people (like the hulking John Goodman) who lend
him vast sums of money, aware of his addictive and destructive nature. No one
can threaten him because he doesn’t seem to care if he lives or dies…yet we
have no idea why.
The film provides a handful of hazy clues, dramatizing his
ruptured relationship with his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange), for instance, but
it refuses to fill in the blanks for us.
Wahlberg’s day job is that of a professor of English
literature at a local college and this, I fear, is hard to swallow. It’s not
that he can’t convey intelligence, but every actor brings baggage with him from
the parts he’s played before and the persona he’s created. There is such a
thing as miscasting and this is a prime example.
The Gambler offers
good supporting roles to Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, and all too
briefly, George Kennedy, but they are in the service of a film that aims for
existential glory and falls short of its goal.