It always seems like there is some money to be made in counter-programming against the holiday season. In a time where the cinemas are awash with feel good family fare and For Your Consideration awards contenders, the discerning fan of the darker sides of life should not be left out in the cold. Enter Rupert Wyatt, coming off the franchise-starting surprise success Rise of the Planet of the Apes, who has along with screenwriter William Monahan (the Academy Award winning screenwriter of The Departed) has chosen to adapt the 1974 James Caan vehicle The Gambler for a modern audience. Filled with its fair share of illicit activity, the film is well poised (especially with the debacle surrounding the crippled release of The Interview) to play the role of box office alternative this holiday season.
Mark Wahlberg has stepped into the James Caan role, playing Jim Bennett, a literature professor who spends his nights feeding his insatiable addiction to gambling. His vice gets him in deep with a series of unsavory loan sharks (Alvin Ing, Michael Kenneth Williams and John Goodman), borrowing money from each purportedly to pay off debt to the others, only to flit it all away at blackjack and roulette tables, seemingly just because he can. He is given seven days to settle up his debts for good, and what follows is a whirlwind of questionable activity, pulling his star student and pseudo love interest (Brie Larson) and mother (Jessica Lange) into his wake, endangering their lives in the process. As time runs out, Jim is backed into a corner, and it is here that he is at his best.
The Gambler has a likeability problem. Monahan’s screenplay, requires its audience to be on Jim’s side in order to work. He does some incredibly boneheaded things over the course of the film’s two hours, and his actions are short-sighted and perilous to those around him. Jim is designed to be an anti-hero, the sort of fast-talking rogue who can charm his detractors on cool factor alone while clearly having more going on under the hood than he may care to admit. Monahan and Wyatt choose to establish these traits in a series of long, tedious lecture/speeches, wherein he sermonizes on the nature of genius and excoriates his class for their lofty ambitions that will not come true. Wahlberg does his best to sell these moments, but there is honestly not a lot he can do with the material (perhaps a different actor could have salvaged them, but that is unlikely), leaving his character to become the least likeable person on screen in a film full of gamblers and loan sharks who would not bat an eye at the idea of breaking a few kneecaps.
The supporting cast is broadly sketched, never given enough time or action to make something of themselves. Jessica Lange is a human pocketbook, existing only as far as her bank account proves useful to feeding Jim’s addiction, and Brie Larson is given so little motivation that she never amounts to anything more than the pretty blonde damsel in distress that finally pushes Jim to settle his debts. Considering she is the subject of a long monologue about how she is the best writer in his class and destined to be something great, the filmmakers sure have no interest in giving any context to that assertion. Williams and Goodman are the lone highlights of the film, though each of them are just as broadly sketched as the rest of the non-Jim characters. Williams hits every shady lender trope right on the nail; he is a human cliche, but at least he manages to have fun with it. Goodman is hardly more than a cameo, which is a strong decision as his vulgar, straight-talking demeanor would be destined to get stale.
This is a one man movie, and Rupert Wyatt and WIlliam Monahan have crafted a protagonist that excels at looking morose, never reacting to anything with even a hint of emotion and even when he might be he’s too busy wearing sunglasses inside to mask any sense of himself. That veneer is never stripped away, and by the time the third act rolls around and he begins indiscriminately turning his students into criminals for purely selfish means, there is no redeeming him. Any person worth his or her salt with any sort of functioning moral compass watching this movie wants nothing more than to watch this man fail, watch him pay for his mistakes and his illogical risky behavior, but that would apparently be too much to ask. The third act of this film reveals the entire enterprise to be morally reprehensible, a blueprint for how not to act and how to get rewarded for it anyway with absolutely no legitimate consequences save a few bruises. He claims to have learned something by the film’s end, but that is surely impossible.
It is possible that Wahlberg made some wrong decisions, and perhaps a different actor would have managed to convey some more emotion that could draw in the audience, give them something to cling to, some shadow to follow into the night as Jim pushes himself further and further to the edge for no discernable or understandable reason. But considering the litany of other problems plaguing this film, the poorly sketched supporting characters, the inane speechifying, the nonexistent stakes, the terrible, terrible song choices (never before has a song managed to lose any and all sense of resonance as Radiohead’s “Creep” has thanks to boneheaded decisions to cover it for film soundtracks), it is clear that this is not simply a case of one bad egg spoiling the bunch. There are far too many bad eggs here, and only a scant few good ones. The bunch never had a chance.