Mark Wahlberg Deals A Cool Hand, But The Gambler Loses Big.

The Gambler.
Director: Rupert Wyatt.
Writer: William Monahan.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Michael Kenneth Williams.
Playing At: The Magnolia, Angelika Film Center (Plano).

James Toback is a filmmaker who lived a hard-knock life in his younger days.

He's certainly an interesting guy. I interviewed him once when he was touring to promote his documentary on the boxer Mike Tyson, the aptly titled Tylson. And in just two minutes with him, it became clear: Toback is a man whose life is worth exploring on film.

And, actually, it already has been. By himself, even. Inspired by his career as a teacher at the City College of New York and his addiction to gambling, Toback turned the story of his young life into script — one that, in 1974 was turned into a James Caan-starring vehicle called The Gambler.

Now, 40 years later, the film got a facelift with a new script and a new cast that, most notably, features Mark Wahlberg in the starring role. There's not much of a change in this updated version, though: The Gambler is, of course, still gambling; and, as tends to happen in these cases, our protagonist gets in way over his head.

His name is Jim Bennett. He hates his job as an associate English professor, he hates his life, he talks to everyone dismissively as if their feelingsĀ don't matter, and, yeah, you could say that he has a death wish of sorts. He enjoys gambling his money away, borrowing high sums from gangsters, losing that money and then borrowing more money from another gangster to pay back the first one.

Eventually, this all comes back to bite him in the ass and Bennett eventually gets in too deep with three separate loan sharks (two of which are played by John Goodman and Michael K. Williams, a couple of actors who know how to look and act dangerously). And he finds himself in a conundrum: If he can't pay all three of these gangsters back within seven days, they'll collect the most vital parts of his body and whatever possessions he hasn't pawned off as payment.

The Gambler isn't a very good movie. It has but one saving grace: Mark Wahlberg's staggering performance. Wahlberg really pumps up the volume on Bennett's unfocused bravado and defeated demeanor. At the card table, his intimidating stare is confident enough to make any dealer nervous. It's fairly glorious, and it's improved by the fact that Wahlberg dropped over 60 pounds for the role so as to lose his tough-guy physique.

Unfortunately, his is still a predictable role in a predictable film. And, aside from Wahlberg's winsome turn, The Gambler is just a huge mess. The story can't really decide where it wants go — until it goes just where you'd expect it to end up.

Director Rupert Wyatt is better than this — or, rather, he should be. His Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed that he's got a talent for sparking reboots. Too bad that talent never shows up here. Neither, for that matter, does the otherwise gifted Brie Larson (Short Term 12), whose role as Wahlberg's love interest is never afforded enough screen time to really hit home.

Perhaps that's why The Gambler's an especially tough loss to take. All of the cards are here. They're just played so horribly, horribly wrong.

In turn, no one here — not even the house — wins.

Grade: C-.

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