Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a curious beast. It’s based on a film that’s just obscure enough that a remake wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers, yet is well-regarded by those who have seen it. In other words, the 1974 original starring James Caan isn’t exactly holy ground, but there’s not much to improve on either, which makes this Mark Wahlberg vanity project feel every bit as irrelevant as the story it’s trying to tell. There’s nothing wrong with flawed characters – in fact, that’s what makes some of the best movies – but when they’re as irredeemable as the one that Wahlberg plays in “The Gambler,” it makes it very difficult to give a damn what happens to him.
Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a college English professor who gave up on his literary dream after his first novel was met with little fanfare. The grandson of a banking magnate, Jim partly attributes his privileged upbringing to becoming the degenerate, high-stakes gambler that’s led him to his current predicament. After falling into debt with a Korean mobster (Alvin Lee), and then borrowing money from nefarious loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams) that he promptly loses on the blackjack table while trying to win back what he owes, Jim is given seven days to pay or else. When his mother (Jessica Lange) eventually caves in and gives him the $260,000 to clear his debt, vowing that it’ll be the last time she bails him out, Jim blows it at the casino instead, putting him in a precarious position when Neville threatens the lives of his two students.
Jim is a creature of habit, so it doesn’t make sense why people would continue to give this guy money when they know exactly what he’s going to do with it. You might be thinking, “Well, that’s what loan sharks do,” but while the fear of punishment, or the punishment itself, is what ultimately motivates these degenerates to pay off their debts, Jim is so blasé about the whole situation that it never seems like he’s in any actual trouble, especially when Neville and the Koreans go so easy on him over the course of the film. You’re almost rooting for the bad guys to break a few bones and show that they mean business, if only because Jim is such a smug, spoiled brat that his destructive tendencies feel less like a disease than the ill-fated actions of an adrenaline junkie. Being unlikable isn’t Jim’s problem, however, but rather the way in which he sabotages relationships and drags people into his mess with selfish disregard. That not only makes him an asshole, but one that the audience can’t identify with, despite some smart and punchy dialogue from William Monahan.
Wahlberg reportedly dropped 60 pounds for the movie (likely all muscle, since his transformation isn’t nearly as unsettling as other actors who’ve shed similar weight), but while his commitment can’t be faulted, he’s simply miscast in a part that required a more nuanced actor. It’s a soulless performance in desperate need of a little soul. Michael K. Williams and John Goodman both shine in supporting roles, particularly the latter, whose ruthless but funny loan shark is the film’s highpoint, but the rest of the cast is wasted, none more so than Brie Larson. The actress plays a student in Jim’s class that discovers his dark secret early on, and although it appears like she’s going to play an integral part to the story, her character serves no real purpose.
At least the gambling scenes are handled with style and verve, dripping in tension and absolutely painful to watch. But while the movie does a great job of illustrating Jim’s self-destructive nature, it never digs any deeper into the root of the problem, which makes it seem fairly hollow as a result. Perhaps that’s the point that Wyatt is trying to make (Goodman’s character even goes on a long rant about how addiction isn’t really a disease at all, but a weakness that he refuses to feel sorry for), though it doesn’t make the film any less of a drag to sit through at times. “The Gambler” had all the right ingredients – a great cast, a talented director and source material that’s already proven to work – but it’s a disappointing misfire that fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise.