Although it’s almost bound to get lost in the crush of other high profile holiday movie season prestige pictures and blockbusters, director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of the 1974 James Toback written and James Caan starring drama The Gambler is a rare example of a re-imagining that outdoes the original in nearly every respect. Working from a screenplay from The Departed scribe William Monahan and with a commanding leading performance from Mark Wahlberg – doing some of his career best work – Wyatt’s updating of a talk about a chronic, problem gamer living on the edge offers plenty of thematic and entertainment value for audiences who simply want to see a good movie instead of a special effects spectacular, a musical, or heavy Oscar bait. It’s great counterprogramming that I hope finds the audience it deserves.
Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a university English professor with a massive gambling debt and addiction. He has wasted enormous sums of money in foolish ways that have left him at odds with his estranged, wealthy mother (Jessica Lange), and has led to him being at the mercy of a pair of dangerous loan sharks (Michael K. Williams and Alvin Ing) who both want to be paid back immediately after staking Jim for huge losses. Jim struggles with a job he can’t stand and numerous choices as to how to get out of his situation. Does he ask his mom for cash? Does he gamble some more? Does he concoct some sort of masterful scheme to pit his debtors against each other? Does he ask one of his students to go along with shaving points off a basketball game for a cut of the winnings? Or does he cave in and ask the most dangerous and belittling loan shark in town (John Goodman) to stake him one final time?
While some of the choices made by Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) might be a bit on the nose – particularly with his soundtrack choices, which are novel, but uninspired – he overcomes his more populist shortcomings by creating an uncompromised vision of a sociopath on the edge. In this year’s cinematic depictions of self-destructive characters with little regard for the people around them, Jim Bennett is only slightly more likable and sympathetic than Nightcrawler’s deranged social climber, Lou Bloom. That’s probably only because Jim is literally and figuratively having sense beaten into him when he needs it the most.
There’s a hint of a love story here by way of Brie Larson’s somewhat under-utilized and underwritten student character, but that’s not even designed to necessarily make Jim seem more likable. It’s not even so much a story about addiction despite Jim’s predilection for wasting tens of thousands of dollars every time he plays a single turn of blackjack. It’s a story about a deep, suicidal level of depression that can lead to an addiction. Jim’s a nihilistic, washed-up novelist who hates his job, hates his family, and hates himself. He admits that he has no talents worth speaking of, but he’s frustrated that he can’t assert his intellectual superiority on those around him. He’s an example of a brilliant man who has never applied himself beyond going for the simplest of solutions. Gambling and the fear of death are the only things that keep him alive, and he’s resigned himself to a fate where only death can force him into a vacation.
Monahan’s screenplay and Wyatt’s direction are decidedly free of bullshit, yet remarkably erudite. The style (restrained and stylish without being overly elaborate) and the substance (wordy, talkative, sometimes rambling) never allows a moment where the film can ever excuse Jim’s actions. It’s a work of silent judgment and condemnation that isn’t asking the audience for sympathy, but rather making the viewer question if this character has the capacity for betterment or redemption. Even by the film’s somewhat ambiguous conclusion, it’s hard to tell if the ultimate outcome was lucky or planned.
But the film belongs to Wahlberg, who gets a chance to tap into the same sort of charisma that he hasn’t been able to show since his scene stealing turn in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees or his comedic work in The Other Guys. Wahlberg has a very underrated talent for playing headstrong jerks, and with his electrifying work here, he imbues the material with a much needed sense of coal black comedy. A key set piece where Professor Bennett dresses down his entire class with a several minute long speech about the nature of fame, talent, and ambition is one of the best speeches delivered by an actor this year. It’s so great that it threatens to make the movie peak a bit too early. But Wahlberg is so smart of a performer (it’s really amazing how far he has come as an actor) that he uses that entire lengthy speech to convey every aspect of his character in a warts-and-all tour de force moment. It sets out the stakes for the rest of the film and shows the character’s entire world view without resorting to relentless exposition. Wahlberg is selling subtext, which is one of the hardest things any actor can do. It’s all there in Monaghan’s screenplay, but Wahlberg does the material one better.
Sure, Wahlberg gets great assists from Larson, Williams, Lange, and Goodman, all of whom are bringing their A-game to key supporting roles, but just like the character he plays, Wahlberg never backs down in the face of immense odds. It’s a spectacular portrait of an ego raging out of control, something that Karel Reisz’s original film never got across. If people still want to doubt Wahlberg’s talents as a major star, they needn’t look further than this.