With Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams. Written by William Monahan. Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Rated R for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity. 111 minutes.
It took some guts for Mark Wahlberg to tackle the title role of THE GAMBLER, both because it is a gritty and downbeat story and because James Caan did it so well in the original in 1974. That’s forty years ago, though, and perhaps not as well known as other films of that era, so most viewers will come into this fresh. It is the sort of serious, grown-up film that attracts attention during Oscar season, although opening it on Christmas Day seems a curious choice.
Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a compulsive and self-destructive gambler. He is not a stupid man. In fact, he comes from wealth, is a published novelist, and teaches literature at the local university. Yet when we first meet him he is more than $200,000 in debt and getting deeper in the hole.
Even when he’s up, he thinks little of paying off what he owes. Instead he looks to borrow even more from Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Frank (John Goodman), dangerous men who think nothing of beating him to make a point and threatening violence to his loved ones as well. His mother (Jessica Lange) is fed up with bailing him out. A talented student (Brie Larson) watches helplessly as he squanders everything he has. There’s a serious question whether he’s choosing suicide by gambling.
That’s what “The Gambler” is about: a case study of one person’s inability to gain control over his impulsive gambling. Just how low will he sink? Will he take a beating to try to get more money from the people staking him? Will he try to convince a student who is a star basketball player at his school to shave points in order to square a debt? Will he take money from his mother that would solve everything and then fritter it away?
Wahlberg has impressed as an actor for some time now. Sure, he takes money for trash like a “Transformers” movie, but besides the payday, it’s also about keeping and building his star power so he can take chances like this. Bennett is anti-hero, whose actions make us want to wince and look away. There were many such characters in ’70s films, but they’re not so common today. Wahlberg makes us want to see him redeemed even as it looks increasingly unlikely.
He is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Williams and Goodman, in very different ways, come across as both charismatic and dangerous. You want to hear what they have to say even as you never want to cross these people in real life. Lange plays yet another in a series of steely upper-class mothers who carries too much pain inside, while Larson is the opposite, young and full of hope even as she’s starting to see the world as it is. A scene of her walking across campus shows her spontaneously smiling as if she can’t help herself, which makes her encounters with Wahlberg, playing her professor, all the more troubling.
“The Gambler” lets us see the world through the eyes of someone without hope, whose promising future is behind him, and who doesn’t worry about death because it’s inevitable. It’s not quite a holiday movie, but a powerful performance by Wahlberg makes it worth seeing.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.