I wouldn’t necessarily list Mark Wahlberg among my favorite actors, yet I find myself enjoying many of his movies. He’s capable of turning in really good performances – whether it’s Lone Survivor or The Fighter. On the other hand, he’s also good for the occasional dud (see Broken City), though not for lack of effort or talent. When I got wind of The Gambler, I thought it might have been a stylish crime movie something like Rounders meets The Drop. The film could have been an effective character study and examination of addiction – but instead it fell flat, leaving me bored and disappointed.
The Gambler is a remake of a 1974 movie of the same name starring James Caan. The newer version keeps the same basic plot, with Wahlberg starring as English professor Jim Bennett, a man with a profound gambling addiction. We’re introduced to his weakening vice immediately, as he impulsively wagers and loses large sums of money on blackjack and roulette in a backdoor casino. He is not a man who will ever quit while he is ahead. Despite his penchant for reckless living, Jim seems to be doing ok for himself. However, every addict faces rock bottom at some point, and it’s only a matter of time before his lifestyle catches up to him.
While gambling at the aforementioned casino, Jim becomes indebted to its owner after losing big and adding to an existing debt. He borrows more money from a loan shark named Baraka (Michael K. Williams, Kill the Messenger), and soon he owes money to at least two people who are threatening to wipe him out in about a week’s time if he doesn’t pay up. Baraka challenges Jim’s moral code when he wants him to involve one of his students in paying the debt. Complicating matters is the strange dynamic he shares with another one of his students, who moonlights as a waitress at the casino. Their relationship is never fully explored, and the subplot remained undeveloped.
The plot was straightforward, and I appreciated its simplicity. However, the movie could have been much more entertaining. As a viewer, I never connected with Wahlberg’s character, even though his dire circumstances lent themselves to empathy. His performance was capable, but something about it felt too restrained. Where was the abject desperation? I never felt sorry for him, despite his obvious pathetic state. One could see that his addiction was crippling and that he was powerless to stop it, but that was the only aspect of the movie that resonated with me. I could see that he was desperate, but he never made me believe it.
The performances were fine, with some notable supporting turns from Jessica Lange (The Vow) as Jim’s wealthy, enabling mother and John Goodman (The Monuments Men) as yet another loan shark with whom Jim makes a high stakes side-bet. But once again, the movie never really went anywhere. Despite a lot of tough talk, the threats from his bookies felt hollow, and I only mildly cared whether or not Jim escaped with his life. The gambling scenes were taut with anticipation, but those moments were sparse.
In sum, The Gambler just didn’t leave much of an impact. The potential for a great story was there, but the movie never seemed to go anywhere. It could have been an exhilarating ride as we watched a man descend into total desperation – but Jim just seemed like a rich brat who never really “got it.” I thought it was just average. Grade: C+