Rating: 9 out of 10
Mark Wahlberg as Jim Bennett
Brie Larson as Amy Phillips
Michael Kenneth Williams as Neville Baraka
John Goodman as Frank
Jessica Lange as Roberta
George Kennedy as Ed
Domenick Lombardozzi as Big Ernie
Emory Cohen as Dexter
Anthony Kelley as Lamar Allen
Steve Park as Number 2Andre Braugher as Dean Fuller
Richard Schiff as Jeweler
Leland Orser as Larry Jones
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a college literature professor who has a serious gambling problem. It finally comes to a head when he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to a casino owner and is given seven days to repay him, as he gets involved with a number of crooked loan sharks (Michael K. Williams, John Goodman) and a relationship blossoms with one of his students (Brie Larson).
Let’s get this out of the way. “The Gambler” is a remake of a ‘70s film starring James Caan. I have never actually seen that movie, but maybe that’s a good thing, because it allowed me to appreciate this adaptation by “The Departed” screenwriter William Monaghan and director Rupert Wyatt as it’s own thing, something that’s often hard to do with remakes.
After an opening in a hospital room where Jim Bennett’s grandfather (George Kennedy) lays dying, we move into his comfort zone, the casino, where he mounts an amazing winning streak at the blackjack table, winning thousands of dollars which he loses just as fast. Bennett seems to have an amazing knack for knowing what the next card will be, hitting and getting a 3 on 18 and knowing when the dealer is going to bust out. It doesn’t seem like he’s counting cards, as much as that he’s incredibly intuitive. Not that it matters since he bets in such an insane way that he loses everything with one bad bet, leaving him massively in debt to the casino owner. Along comes Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams) who is more than willing to spot Bennett more money with the promise of a percentage of his winnings, and suddenly he owes more money to dangerous people than he can possibly pay back.
This is a great dramatic character role for Wahlberg, although it takes a good deal of effort to believe him as a college professor, particularly during the couple of classroom scenes where what sounds like a lot of nonsense is coming out of his mouth. Bennett drags some of his students into his troubles, even having one student give tennis lessons to his blue blood mother (Jessica Lange). He also gives special attention to Brie Larson’s Amy, a quiet student who works as a cocktail waitress at the casino where Jim loses all that money, and it’s not that surprising when their confrontational relationship turns romantic.
As with “The Fighter,” everyone around Wahlberg is generally better than him, but unlike that movie, he’s never overshadowed here, as much as he raises his game to match the quality of the other actors. It leads to one terrific sequence after as each of these supporting characters inject themselves into Bennett’s life as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble. John Goodman is particularly good as an outspoken loan shark that offers to help Bennett get over his problems, as is Lange who has reached her wit’s end with her son’s gambling.
Monaghan gives his dialogue such a deliberate pace and wording, very much the product of the man who was able to transport the Asian crime-thriller “Infernal Affairs” to rural Boston, while also maintaining the tone and feel of James Toback’s writing. (He wrote the screenplay for the original movie.) What Wyatt is really good at is creating tension whenever Bennett is at the casino table, but also in a climactic scene at a college basketball game when Bennett has to convince another one of his students to throw a game to get Neville to let his debt slide.
It’s left unclear whether Bennett is utterly delusional about his gambling problems or really doesn’t believe he has a problem, but he somehow figures out how to play the players in order to keep them from doing him serious harm. It’s the kind of role that Wahlberg really pulls off well once you adjust to some of his shortcomings.
Despite any problems one might have with some of his decisions, Los Angeles has never looked better than it does as filmed by Greig Fraser, and the score by Jon Brien and Wyatt’s regular composer Theo Green acts as a glue to an eclectic song selection that includes Bob Dylan and Pulp and helps give the movie the retro feel of a ‘70s movie.
The finale is just amazing as Jim returns to the casino where the his problems began to pay off his debtors and goes one for one more ultimate gamble, an effective culmination to what’s been building since the beginning.
The Bottom Line:
“The Gambler” may not be for everyone, as it avoids the typical bombast of resorting to the violence or action of the usual crime thriller, instead focusing its efforts at being a densely-scripted character study. The results keep the viewer just as invested.