- Directed by Rupert Wyatt
- Scripted by William Monahan, adapted the original 1974 screenplay by James Toback
Warning, spoilers ahead!
Here’s another movie review for the The Hollywood News. It’s a very loosely adapted remake of the 1974 James Caan (The Godfather’s Sonny Corleone) vehicle of the same name about an English literature professor with a compulsive gambling problem, this time starring Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch), Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from The Wire), Brie Larsen (Rachel from Community), as well as veterans Jessica Lange (The postman always rings twice) and John Goodman (Barton Fink).
And this gambling problem becomes the driving force of the movie as Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) struggles between trying to achieve an iota of normalcy in his life and his overwhelming desire to have everything, visually represented by having Bennett place increasingly larger bets at casinos, doubling and tripling his winnings, before inevitably coming to the point where it all crashes down and Bennett leaves the casino empty handed. “All or nothing” is the character’s motto and sole life philosophy, which works against him the entire movie, as he seems to be on top the world, ready to atone for his mistakes and fix his life only to bet it all on at the roulette and promptly lose everything like a person with absolutely no self control to speak of.
It all starts with Bennett sitting next to his grandfather, who is on his death bed, where they have a cryptic conversation about his imminent death and if Jim will be alright (Since he says he’s leaving him nothing), at first glance it seems just like cryptic character development but it reveals that just like Camus’ Meursault, Bennett is a nihilist resigned to the fact that everything is ephemeral and will one day disappear, so he coasts through life, completely apathetic and disconnected from his emotions, knowing, and seemingly not caring, that he can do nothing to escape his ultimate fate.
And this is our main complaint about the movie: Bennett never emotes is a generally abrasive character. He carries one expression throughout the entire thing, and it’s one of complete and utter apathy. Grandfather is on the brink of death? Meh! He just lost a quarter of a million dollars in a single night at the casino? Don’t care! He owes that plus interest to several loan sharks? Couldn’t care less!; Oh, they’re threatening to kill his entire family If he doesn’t pay on time? I’ve got nothing, mate! It feels very silly to have a character exposed to extenuating circumstances and having him carry this entirely deadpan expression on his face throughout the entire ordeal and all the enthusiasm of a catatonic person.
He never grows, never changes or learns from his mistakes, even though he’s surrounded by extenuating circumstances, even though he makes constant easily avoidable screw ups on a whim entirely for the sake of extending the movie’s runtime and his actions never seem to get him in trouble in spite of the man’s suicidal tendency to push his luck with Korean mobsters and two very angry loan sharks.
There’s absolutely nothing at stake when the main protagonist is as indifferent as Bennett, which is a big problem since this movie is supposed to be a thriller, but the only thrills come from seeing in what new and creative ways will sabotage himself and extend the movie’s two almost two hour runtime, which evidences another problem: there doesn’t seem to be enough plot to fill those hours, so we get situations transparently designed to pad out the movie, the most egregious example being the scenes with Bennett’s mother, played by Jessica Lange, who also plays an emotionally stunted human being, but a seemingly infinitely wealthy one. We’re supposed to extrapolate that the relationship between the two of them is very thorny, but it’s hard to tell because Wahlberg’s character treats her with the same apathetic demeanor he brings to every other interaction in the movie, and Lange’s character seems to be on the far side of manic, constantly on the edge of bawling her eyes out and with a level of histrionics that seem better at home at either the theater or a Mexican soap opera. In one scene, Lange takes Wahlberg to the bank so they can withdraw money to pay off his debts and then, our hero goes all in and flushes the entire amount in a night of card games.
The plot actually revolves around him gambling: After his grandfather’s funeral, he goes to an underground casino run by the korean mafia, located under a derelict warehouse. Mind you, this is a fully stocked casino, complete with bars, several game tables with patrons and dealers and even a large stage for performances, where we get to see one of the film’s many underdeveloped antagonists sing, It’s kind of like if the only entrance to the Casino de Monte Carlo was inside of one of those portable toilets you see outside of construction sites. Bennett exchanges $10 thousand for casino chips and in the span of five minutes goes from having multiplied his winnings several times over to having to borrow money from a loan shark, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, whom for nebulous reasons gives him a $50 thousand loan, which he promptly loses playing it all on the Roulette that very same night.
The plot then concentrates on how Bennett is going to able to payoff his enormous bets in seven days. He finds himself suddenly indebted to korean mobsters, who are seemingly content to keep handing money to the compulsive gambler who promises to pay them back if they could just lend him a little more! In a surprising show of restraint, the loan sharks hovering over him like a dark cloud don’t beat up the man until very late in the movie, but still makes you question how these supposed savvy crime lords are able to keep entire clandestine enterprises if they keep lending money to people who are obviously unable to pay it off.
The making of The Gambler
Without going into major spoilers, the ending is disappointing because of how in-congruent and entirely out of tune it is with the rest of the movie, like if a bunch of studio executives demanded changes to make it more palatable for audiences and the director caved in. Which is, of course, a complete co-pout because of how hard it clashes with the rest of the movie and how thematically inappropriate it is. Imagine if The grapes of wrath ended with a scene in which Grandpa Joad comes back from the dead and interrupts the barn scene with Rose of Sharon by slamming open the door and yelling at everybody to pack up because he found oil and they’re now moving to Beverly Hills while Dueling Banjos blasts off in the background and the movie fades into credits. While the ending is not as silly as this description, it does require a level of suspension of disbelief usually reserved for super hero or fantasy movies because of how sheerly convoluted the whole thing gets.
Another way to look at The Gambler is to think of it as a guide of how not to bet in a casino, with the greatest lesson being “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, like Bennett does when he decides to put a quarter of a million dollars on the ball to land on a black space in the roulette, only to lose everything but his pants. I think it’s fairly self evident why putting every single penny you have to your name on a single roulette spin is bad idea, not just because of the low payout you’d get if luck isn’t feeling particularly fickle that day, but because like the movie so deftly proves, all or nothing will more often than not, land on “nothing”.
The best way to approach a game of chance is to do small, incrementally increasing or decreasing bets, depending on how well you’re doing and trying to learn the magic of playing odds or evens, in a safe environment. This protects you losing everything on a single hand, roulette spin or roll of the dice so you keep enjoying the games longer and even make winnings in the long run. Oh, and don’t harass or pressure your croupier: getting on the bad side of the person handling your money is inviting disaster to happen and it’s up there, on par to lighting yourself on fire because the weather is a bit cold, in the scale of terrible ideas. Even in a casino, there’s no such thing as fast, easy money: you’ll have to train and work for it hard in order to come out on top.
While it’s not a great movie, maybe you can derive some level of entertainment from it if you’re a big fan of Wahlberg. The movie’s themes may hit close to home for some people, but we come to the all too frequent problem that the main character is utterly unlikable, bizarrely apathetic and is thus impossible to empathize with, so you’re never really invested in cheering for him or seeing him succeed, which seems like a bizarre decision because the movie is supposed to be a thriller. The cinematography, and its use of dark and drab colors actually complement the whole despair motif that the movie tries to go for and is for the most part very competent, which is a shame because the rest of the parts don’t seem to carry as much punch, the script is weak and full of one dimensional characters, it all feels like a weak imitation of the works of directors Martin Scorsese and Guy Ritchie.