A feel bad movie for the holiday season, this remake of the James Toback’s The Gambler charms as well as it repulses.
Release date: December 25, 2014 (USA)
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman
Running time: 111 minutes
MPAA rating: R
The Gambler is a difficult movie to watch – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the most engaging films ever made make you feel a little sick. But, unfortunately for me, it’s just as difficult to review The Gambler as it was to watch. This movie’s a Rorschach test: what you think of it says a lot about you. So I feel like I’m going to have to bare my soul here.
Two disturbing facts: 1) I think if you enjoy this film, there’s something wrong with you. 2) I enjoyed it a lot.
The Gambler follows Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a literature professor and gambling addict. We see him first with his dying grandfather, who tells him he’s not leaving him anything in his will. We soon realize why: Jim’s in the middle of an epic collapse into uncontrolled gambling.
We get an idea of the kind of painful tension we’re in for when Bennett goes on a winning streak at an underground gambling parlor. He wins at blackjack hand after hand, repeatedly putting all his winnings on the next bet. Every time he wins, we feel a surge of exhilaration, and every time he fails to put any money aside we feel dread, knowing his luck can only last so long. We’re drawn in: what the hell is he thinking? Why can’t he leave well enough alone? Inevitably, he loses all his winnings, and seems almost happy about it. He goes further into debt by borrowing from the house (Alving Ing), and then doubles down by borrowing from a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams).
At the end of this first night, he’s in deep to a lot of bad people and we’re clear that things will only get worse from here. Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and screenwriter William Moynahan (The Departed) have a tough task in adapting the 1974 original version starring James Caan. This is a story about a selfish, depressed, borderline suicidal man with little regard for anyone in his life. Making that interesting – let alone enjoyable – is a tall order.
Although the movie’s far from perfect, I think it mostly succeeds at making us wonder what makes Jim Bennett tick. So often films about addiction and depression inspire frustration from the audience: Just snap out of it! What’s wrong with him? Here, although we’re never truly shown why Jim is this way, we come to understand that his ailment is immune to logic. Addiction is insane and addicts don’t need a reason to engage their addiction, it’s simply part of them. In this way, it’s wonderful that The Gambler provides no half-assed Freudian explanation for Bennett’s damage.
While that’s one of the great things about the film, it’s also why I think a lot of people won’t enjoy it. It is stubbornly nihilistic and depressing. It refuses to give us explanations and asks us to root for a character that has lost the natural ability to root for himself. Which brings me back to what I said about the film as a kind of emotional diagnostic: I’m guessing that if you’ve never had bouts of self-loathing or fantasies of self-destruction, this story will strike you as self-indulgent and melodramatic. Of course, it is self-indulgent and melodramatic, but in a way that most depressive self-haters pretty much love. Thus my statement that if you like this movie, you must be at least a little messed up.
All this nihilism and negativity would be overbearing if not balanced by comedy, and it is. Wahlberg is excellent at bringing a sarcastic charm to his quest for self-destruction, and is especially entertaining when giving “What’s the point of life?” type lectures to his college class. He’s surrounded by some great comedic turns from John Goodman and Jessica Lange, as well as fun performances by Brie Larson and Richard Schiff. The latter actor is only in one scene, but it’s one of my favorites of the film, a perfect example of its brand of existential comedy.
The only major complaint I have is with the ending. To some degree, I think the filmmakers abandoned their admirable refusal to meet expectations. The Gambler provides an unlikeable anti-hero and rather than build up the story through climaxes, it simply lulls on, one beat just as depressing as the last. But the ending reaches for a more typical catharsis, and it misses for me.
Still, it mostly holds up well and should provide a fun, witty ride for anyone after a little enjoyable self-torture at the movie theater.