Piers Marchant on The Gambler remake

December 26, 2014

The Gambler
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jessica Lange, Alvin Ing
Rating: R, for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 111 minutes

By Piers Marchant
for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

MV5BMjA5MjIzODE3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzUwNzYwMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_One thing you don’t normally have to work to deduce is the protagonist’s motivation in a gambling picture. Either they’re broke, or seriously in the hole, or they have something to prove to someone, or they just love the juice, whatever it is remains front and center and absolutely central to the film’s narrative.

But James Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) remains something of a cypher in this regard. An associate professor of literature at an L.A. university, from an extremely wealthy family, lead by his mother (Jessica Lange), your requisite cold-hearted bloodhound, he would seem to want for nothing in particular, yet shortly after we first meet him, attending his beloved grandfather’s funeral, he’s driving his fancy BMW up into the hills to private Korean gambling hall, and wagering $80K without a regard in the world for the outcome.

Though, it turns out, that’s not exactly right: Eventually, we come to realize his point — and beyond the not-so-subtle references to Camus’ The Stranger relentlessly placed in the screenplay update by William Monahan — but even then, it’s not until the film’s climax that we truly understand just what it is he’s up to. Interestingly, Rupert Wyatt’s film (based somewhat loosely on the 1974 original) spends a good deal of time playing with our understanding and expectation of a film involving a man who gets in too deep until the only way out is all the way through.

The night in the Korean casino proves a notable one for Bennett: He quickly falls into an even greater hole to the casino’s proprietor, Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), and in trying to pay him back, finds a new man to give him a stake, the whippet smart Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), who grins at him like a jungle cat eyeing a gimpy wildebeest, before laying another $50K in his lap.

To pay both men back, Bennett brings in yet another party, Frank (John Goodman), the heavy-set loan shark, who seemingly spends a majority of his time shvitzing in steam rooms and explaining the basic principles of “[eff] you money.” Each man continues to give Bennett stakes, even as he keeps coming up dry time and again, until it becomes apparent part of his appeal to them is his candor and seeming lack of desperation. It’s not that Bennett feels the need to win big, it’s that he simply doesn’t care what happens as long as it eventually comes to point by which everything must be put on the line with a simple winner-take-all consequence.

As inscrutable as Bennett is — at one point, he leads a large seminar class to believe that only one of them has any actual writing gift (which would happen to be his eventual love interest, played by Brie Larson) and the rest should pack it in and find a good alternative to literature — he’s in fine company: Just about every other character in the film speaks in the same quasi-metaphysical ellipses (Baraka at one point explains “These days we’re all stuck with being who we are and where we are forever. No new world except maybe in the stars when we’re all dead. So we deal with where we are and what we are”). It’s a bit like watching an Aaron Sorkin production, only with everybody speaking in obtuse simile rather than pedantic quips. Midway through the film, the characters’ haughty eloquence begins to get on your nerves, especially when you realize absolutely nobody seems to be able to clearly state their purposeful desire in anything other than the most indirect of ways.

The other significant obstacle, of course, would be the film’s much-celebrated source material, Karel Reisz’ searing 1974 film which stars James Caan as a professor with a gambling addiction so intense and unalterable as to thoroughly whither any semblance of moral code. Simply put, this remake, while intriguing, isn’t in the same sort of class (but to be fair, the original was released during the single most jarring and artistically vital period in the history of the Hollywood studio system); Wahlberg, though game, is no Caan; William Monahan is no James Toback (who wrote the original screenplay based on his own, nearly lethal gambling addiction), and the remake naturally pales in comparison to the dark, disjointed original.

And yet, somehow, I warmed to this version and its obliqueness. It might have been Wahlberg’s desperate performance — about 180º from the guileless idiocy of Dirk Diggler — which began to win me over, or it might have been the film’s refusal to go gently into the spangled lights of Vegas, or the dreary rehab center. It seeks more for Bennett than just another warning to those of us who don’t want their lives to come apart at the seams, it drives relentlessly towards its point, and damn if it’s not an effective execution in doing so.

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