2014, R, 111 min. Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jessica Lange, Alvin Ing, Emory Cohen, Anthony Kelley.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 26, 2014
Is there any sound more seductive than the soft, sensual susurrations of playing cards sleeking their way across a green felt field from dealer to bettor? Or the marble-in-a-maelstrom clatter and drop of a croupier’s roulette wheel? Probably there is, but you wouldn’t know it from The Gambler, Rupert Wyatt’s fine remake of the eponymous 1974 film, in which James Caan, at the height of his game, sizzled alongside James Toback’s debut screenplay. This time out, William Monahan is the writer, and the locale has jumped from grimy New York City to smog-sunny Los Angeles, but the game remains – mostly – the same: nerve-wracking, perverse, and sinfully exhilarating. (The original film’s producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler return.)
Wahlberg, playing against type in one of his juiciest roles ever, is Jim Bennett, a failed novelist and collegiate creative-writing professor by day and a compulsive gambler by night. In between, he’s mostly a nihilistic prick with a cocksure attitude, a million-dollar wardrobe, and enough curdled self-loathing to make John Cassavetes flinch. Early on, we see how incautious a man he is when he swaggers into a decorous Hollywood Hills gambling den run by Korean kingpin Mr. Lee (Ing) – to whom he already owes $240K – and gets another L.A. loanshark (Williams’ gutter-lofty, Kangol-wearing Neville Baraka) to front him $50K, which he immediately loses at the blackjack table.
And so it goes, with Bennett pontificating on Camus’ The Stranger during the daylight and either fleeing from or attempting to cozy up to the bad guys (not least a fantastic Goodman), while self-destructing moment-by-moment. A potential angel arrives in the guise of Amy (Larson), the only student in his class for whom he seems to have any respect. Cue a dalliance. Lange, taking much-needed time off from American Horror Story, nails a plum role as Bennett’s filthy rich and sick-of-it-all mother; flashbacks to Bennett’s childhood reveal a toxic relationship that may be at the rotten core of Bennett’s adult addiction.
Wahlberg brings an intense, often internalized performance to a wickedly written role, and while he’s no James Caan, he’s certainly able to infuse this mesmerizing character study with enough rancid brio to make this self-flagellating hustler believably doomstruck. To Bennett, life itself is a losing proposition.