Remake Of "The Gambler" Is Drab, Pointless

Moviegoers who can buy Mark Wahlberg as an English professor (hah!) might only be half put off by “The Gambler,” a sleepy, listless redo of the 1974 James Caan starrer. Helmed by Rupert Wyatt (“Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes”), this remake not only fails to justify its own existence, it very nearly calls into question the necessity of the material in any form.

William Monahan’s screenplay about an associate professor with a major gambling problem is a far cry from his spirited work on Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (also a remake). Here the scribe throws a lot of talented performers bones without any meat on them, driving Wyatt to remain tonally uncommitted for the duration. Within its first five minutes the movie is three different things – drama, swaggering comedy, and thriller – before setting itself up as something even the greenest moviegoer has seen before. “You owe me $240,000 and I want it in seven days.”

That’s an actual line of dialogue from the film, which sets into motion the expected, protracted title card countdown. Our hero has only five days before he’ll surely be killed! Oh, no, now it’s only four! Except, he’s not a hero at all. He’s barely a character.

No, Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a gambling man with an obvious death wish, consistently borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, only to turn around and spit in Paul’s face. Because he has a disease. Or at least that’s what the film would like us to think, or at least ponder, or ultimately ignore entirely since it doesn’t seem to care about Jim either way. He’s just a pawn out all alone, with no plan of action, no support system, no apparent world view. Through no fault of Wahlberg’s, Jim Bennett is a soup can of a character, uncared for by his own film, left for us to shrug off.

The usually excellent Brie Larson (“21 Jump Street”) brings a deer-in-the-headlights gape as Amy, a student of Jim’s and would-be love interest, one who unwittingly uncovers his secret life right off the bat. Before we’ve even been introduced to the character. Yes, the screenplay’s primary bit of intrigue is thrown out immediately, awkwardly tailing into a long, unintelligible lecture hall spiel from Jim about Shakespeare and his own insecurities and Amy’s talent for writing.

Only John Goodman (“The Big Lebowski”) occasionally rises above the drone, giving towering life to one of Jim’s many debtors. It’s a character we never get to know, but he jumpstarts the film each of the three times he appears.

Jessica Lange (“Tootsie”) looks tired as the wealthy matriarch of the Bennett family, while Michael K. Williams (HBO’s “The Wire”) will have to continue his search for a film role worth a damn. As the ostensible villain of the piece, he shoulders its worst moments, including a vignette of reaction shots to a basketball game on TV that the character shows no evidence of watching, much less understanding the game.

“The Gambler” is the kind of movie that features its lead character acting like a sucker at a Blackjack table, only to have a security guard step into frame, chomping on – you guessed it – a sucker. The picture seems wryly amused with itself – see its numerous cutesy musical choices – but from beginning to end it’s flatter than decades-old cola. It’s an admirable choice to make gambling unsexy – it can be a monstrously ugly thing – but never before has it been this boring on screen. And without a single relatable character to cling to.

Despite some nice photography by cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Foxcatcher”), “The Gambler” is dead on arrival. Without worthwhile characters, a character piece is just a piece – a bit of slang that fits the film quite nicely.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: December 25, 2014
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenwriters: William Monahan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Michael K. Williams
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity)