Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett in this remake of the 1974 James Caan film The Gambler and as directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) this version leaves the audience dumbfounded, depressed and not a little confused. Like the original film, Wahlberg’s gambler is a academic figure, a professor who teaches literature at an unidentified Los Angeles college. Jim Bennett is a published author who has given up writing to teach it, or rather to discourage others from participating as writers.
The main differences between the Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) version apart from the obvious name difference and the fact that the first was written by James Toback and the 2014 film was penned by William Monahan, are the main protagonist’s personality, the financial status of both men’s mother’s and the romantic situation as well as the monetary amounts being much greater in this newest version of the story. In the 1974 film, Caan’s Axel Freed has a girlfriend at the start and Wahlberg’s Bennett does not, there are other things that set the two films apart but they both tell essentially the same story, just 40 years apart.
The first tale about an addicted gambler in the 1970s was a tale of a man addicted to gambling. In 1974’s The Gambler, Caan’s character was an addict, a man who could not help himself and was ultimately on the path to lose everything. Mark Wahlberg’s gambler seems more addicted to his own philosophy of all or nothing at all which leaves the audience dumbfounded and depressed. This literature professor does have a self destructive streak a mile wide and is a full blown unlikeable narcissist.
It seems that being born into money entitled this silver spoon recipient to be miserable. Granted, at the beginning of the film, Bennett’s grandfather, played by a shockingly old-looking George Kennedy, informs his grandson that he has left him nothing out of his apparently sizable estate. Bennett’s mother, Roberta (played by Jessica Lange) is estranged from her son and has presumably gotten all the money her boy missed out on.
Bennett loses an enormous amount of money to a Korean casino owner and then goes on to get further in debt by taking money from a loan shark. Along the way, while taking money from his mother and getting further in debt by getting a loan from Frank (John Goodman). The professor starts an affair with one of his students, Amy Phillips, played by Brie Larson, whom he zeroes in on by telling his class that her work contains genius that the rest of them will never attain or match.
Wahlberg’s gambler is a selfish, emotionless shell of a man. One who callously mistreats his mother after putting her in danger by purposefully losing even more money. The only time his character stops his mindless drive to self destruct through gambling is when the student he is sleeping with is threatened. This is one of the biggest problems of the film, over and above the fact that it is almost impossible to get behind Bennett at any point in the movie. Bennett’s turnaround makes no sense as there is not enough time spent proving that the two are more than a short lustful dalliance.
Jim Bennett is a shallow, destructive, selfish and boorish man. The audience never really get the feeling that he cannot pass up a chance to gamble, it feels more like the means to an end, not his literal end, but his pursuit of the big win or an adrenaline rush. In fact, the only character that actually resonates in the film is Goodman’s Frank. This bald behemoth gives a “F**k you” speech that is brilliant in its old fashioned message of stability and the ability to tell the world “F**k you.” This spiel makes Frank almost endearing as he seems to really believe this outdated system of living within one’s means.
Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler proves that he does have a huge set of acting chops. He gives a great performance as the unlikable character, whom everyone in the films seems so oddly attracted to and are ultimately charmed by, that single mindedly sets himself a challenge rather than opt for ruining himself. The film’s ending will leave the audience depressed as well as dumbfounded. It feels like the studio thought the ending should not make sense. The Gambler opens December 25, prepare to be somewhat impressed and confused by this remake.
By Michael Smith
Brenden Palms Theatre