You can’t accuse me of The-Original-Is-Always-Bettering director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of “The Gambler.” I’ve never seen Karel Reisz’s 1974 original with James Caan. Mark Wahlberg’s version disappointed all on its own.
Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a literature professor and a gambler less addicted to gambling then he is to the risk of being assaulted or even killed by one of the many loan sharks he’s into. For most of the film, we watch Bennett spiral down and down some more. Eventually a love interest arrives: One of Bennett’s students (played by Brie Larson). Can she save him? It’s hard to care. Bennett’s got a good job, comes from money, and even published a novel. He’s a nihilist with mommy issues. This is neither interesting, sympathetic, or much of an explanation.
It is not hard to imagine how much better Caan was in the role of a degenerate gambler so disappointed in the everyday of everyday that he has to live on the edge of life and death through the drop of a roulette ball or the turn of a card. Without saying a word, Caan’s screen presence communicates a restless firecracker impatient with the dit-dit of the ordinary. As much as I like Wahlberg (he’s a terrific movie star) and hate to say this, the character of Bennett is a little beyond his reach.
The film is beautifully shot in and around Los Angeles. Despite the presence of cell phones, the story could easily have been set in the 70s or 80s (like Wahlberg’s haircut and wardrobe).
The first hour or so is mostly filled with the main characters monologuing, especially Bennett. With Mamet-lite chunks of dialogue, the script is determined to reveal everyone’s life-philosophy and TRUTH. As The Big Kahuna of Vengeful Loan Sharks, only John Goodman lifts these moments to poetic heights (his “fuck you” monologue is a thing of beauty and truth).
Wahlberg sounds like he always does: hopelessly earnest when what the audience should be sensing is the invisible, malevolent live-wire that sparks this character’s self-destruction. It’s just not there.
The third act is a marked improvement over acts one and two. The impact of the film’s final moments, though, depends on how much you’ve bought into the meaning of Bennett’s romantic relationship with his student. Unfortunately, I didn’t.
One pleasant surprise is George Kennedy’s small role. Yes, that George Kennedy.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC