AFI Fest: “The Gambler” – Review by Daniel Rester

Wahlberg Takes a Gamble

AFI Fest: 

The Gambler

Review by Daniel Rester 

In the opening scene of The Gambler, a wealthy and dying grandfather tells his grandson that he will inherit nothing after the old man’s passing. The grandson, a literary professor named Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), soon begins a downward spiral into gambling habits. He’s a guy who seemingly should have it all, yet he makes multiple life choices that knock him down.

Jim is a reckless type willing to risk doubling his money on blackjack repeatedly. This soon loses him everything and puts him in deep debt to a gambling outfit operator named Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing) and a loan shark named Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams). But Jim cares little about this, retreating to his suicidal depression and just taking things as they come.

The character’s practical way of looking at certain situations extends over to his classroom. He begins to tell his students that only the genius ones will make it far, but that the talented ones need to take risks and push themselves; the others will be stuck in the middle, with Jim saying that is fine because “the world needs plenty of electricians.” He sees some spark in Amy (Brie Larson), a bright student who happens to know of Jim’s gambling addiction.

Jim’s problems soon escalate, with others entering the messy situation. This includes his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) and an underworld money loaner named Frank (John Goodman), who reluctantly try to help Jim. A star college athlete named Lamar (Anthony Kelley), who is one of Jim’s students, comes into play as well.

The Gambler is based on the 1974 film of the same name which starred James Caan. That film was written by James Toback, which in turn was inspired by his own career and gambling addictions. This remake is scribed by William Monahan (Oscar winner for The Departed (2006)) and was originally meant as a vehicle for Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. Instead it eventually moved on to producer-star Wahlberg and director Rupert Wyatt, the latter coming off of making Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). While I think Scorsese and DiCaprio might have churned out a picture with more weight, Wahlberg and Wyatt’s film still comes up successful.

While not quite the Oscar-caliber film it might think it is, The Gambler is still a solid crime drama working as slick entertainment. The film is elevated by some sharp dialogue and fine performances. Wyatt also delivers some tight suspense in a few of the gambling sequences, with close-ups of eye movements and card flips utilized very well. Some of the character emotion does come through as well, with Wahlberg making the bratty and sad Jim someone who is interesting to watch — though not always worth rooting for, which is a bit of an issue.

The lead actor isn’t on the level of his work in Boogie Nights (1997) or The Departed, but this film still gives us one of his better performances. Let’s just say Wahlberg is much more passable as a teacher in this than he was in The Happening (2008), and he gives us a flawed character that doesn’t just rely on the actor’s natural likability. During the Q&A after the film, Wahlberg admitted that Jim might have been the most challenging role he’s ever taken on. I hope he continues to explore and take on such parts.

Despite Wahlberg and leading actress Larson’s efforts, they both come up pale in comparison to some of the supporting actors. The central relationship between Jim and Amy simply isn’t developed enough to cause the stirring emotions the film seeks in the end. I wish the beautiful and talented Larson was given more to do here, as she has certainly proved herself with films like The Spectacular Now (2013) and Short Term 12 (2013). Instead her character just becomes an on-the-side female meant to care for Jim the majority of the time.

Lange is exceptional in the couple of scenes she is in, but it’s Williams and Goodman who stand out. The two character actors make Neville and Frank completely believable, both wise and tough characters in their own ways. Neville could be looked at as the primary antagonist, yet Williams never makes him a cartoon gangster; he keeps him grounded yet intimidating. Goodman, always welcome, impresses in a number of scenes with his trying-to-teach-you-something speeches to Jim. One particular speech involving using the words “fuck you” especially stands out.

Wyatt’s film is crafted well enough and makes good use of Los Angeles locations. As mentioned, some of the writing and acting pops as well. But the film just never soars like you expect it to after the opening scenes, which is too bad. The Gambler is completely watchable and very entertaining, but given the talent of all involved I expected a bit more.

Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B).

MPAA Rating: N/A (will likely be R).

Runtime: 1 hour and 51 minutes.  

U.S. Release Date: December 19th, 2014 (limited); January 1st, 2015 (wide).

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