Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Leland Orser, Emory Cohen, George Kennedy, Richard Schiff
Run Time: 111 minutes
Synopsis: The death of a beloved grandfather sends a literature professor with a high-stake gambling addiction on a path of self-loathing and destruction as he counter-balances mounting gaming debts with borrowed money from a number of dangerous loan sharks.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’s Rupert Wyatt shows viewers a glimpse into the havoc of an entitled and self-indulgent whiner hell-bent on self-destruction in his latest film THE GAMBLER that stars Mark Wahlberg in the lead role.
Rebooted from James Toback’s original 1974 film starring James Caan, Wyatt’s direction and William Monahan’s screenplay are decidedly different from their predecessors: not only in comparable terms (the protagonist is still a gambling addicted literature professor and disgraced scion of a wealthy family) but in terms of its move from the seedy dens and skinning dives of NYC to the veneered denizen of LA and from Toback’s existentialist bravado to Monahan’s lackadaisical je ne sais quoi.
But what really sets Wyatt’s film apart is the opening sequence catalyst that removes protagonist Jim Bennett’s (Wahlberg) moral compass and beloved relative, which propels him towards a self-destructive, downward spiral.
Behind the apathy and veiled glasses, nothing matters anymore in Bennett’s world. Not his university tenure, his critically acclaimed novel from 1997, or material possessions. Not even the quarter of a million dollars he owes to a number of dangerous characters including underground casino owner Mr Lee (Alvin Ing), loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) and a money lender called Frank (played superbly onscreen by an almost entirely topless John Goodman). As his student/love interest, Brie Larson (Amy Phillips) points out, Bennett is ‘the perfect example of how a person can start off with no problems whatsoever and then go out of their way to make sure they have all of them’.
As a part-time cocktail waitress at the Korean-run casino, Brie has witnessed first hand, Bennett’s destructiveness as he wins then loses heavily on the Blackjack and Roulette tables (an homage to Dostoyevsky’s tomes The Gambler and Notes From Underground). And despite his mounting predicament with each flip of a Blackjack card and drop of the Roulette ball, one can’t help but empathise with this unrepentant anti-hero in denial of his addiction.
Framed within a ticking clock (Bennett has seven days to procure the funds to pay off his debts), Wyatt manages to keep the Peter to pay Paul action going with smack downs from his superior supporting cast including Bennett’s gorgon of a mother Roberta (Jessica Lange), ‘don’t fuck with me’ gangster Neville, ‘let me be your uncle’ Frank, and ‘that prince of fucking darkness’ Mr Lee. The fluidity in which Goodman interprets and delivers Monahan’s intellective dialogue is like listening to Yo Yo Ma play on Petunia or Davidov.
Perhaps that’s why audiences are exposed to Wyatt’s cliché ending of Wahlberg running through the streets of LA to his lady love – he’s still trying to measure up to the superb performances and believability of his cast mates. Don’t get me wrong – Wahlberg does a great job as the disinherited snob on a death wish – I just see TED’s John Bennett trying to be professor Jim Bennett more. And perhaps, right there, is the irony of it all and we completely missed it.
Beautifully shot by ZERO DARK THIRTY’s Greig Fraser, THE GAMBLER is a visceral experience worth watching for the photography work alone and despite the sad reality that Bennett really isn’t in any real danger of coming to an end. Sad that.
[usr=3] THE GAMBLER opens in the UK on 23rd January.