AFI Fest Film Review: The Gambler (★★½)

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AFI Film Festival: In the age of the anti-hero, the unlikable protagonist is not all that uncommon. Yet, even with unlikable lead characters, there is usually something about them that gives you a reason to cheer; that gives you a reason to hope things go their way in the end.

This is not the case with Mark Wahlberg‘s Jim Bennett in the new Rupert Wyatt  film, The Gambler. This remake of the 1974 classic gives us a lead character that is not only unlikable, but is also completely unsympathetic.

Jim Bennett is a college literary professor on a path of stupidity and self-destruction. He has an addiction to gambling, Blackjack being his game of choice, and has managed to amass an unthinkable amount of debt to an underground casino boss. In the opening scenes of the film, he also finds himself borrowing money from a dangerous loan shark (Michael K. Williams). When he finds himself with a deadline of only seven days to pay off his debts, Bennett explores every avenue he can think of to come up with the money, pay off his debts, and free himself from his deadly habit. This includes going to his mother (Jessica Lange), and an even more dangerous loan shark, Frank (John Goodman).

There are so many problems with The Gambler that I’m not quite sure where to start. I suppose the first place to start is with William Monahan‘s (The Departed) script, which gives us a Jim Bennett that has no apparent rhyme or reason to his actions. Nothing about his charmed life gives us any clues as to why he would fall into a destructive path of addiction, or how it came about in the first place. Also, the audience is never given any context for the ridiculous decisions he makes along the way, borrowing money from the wrong people without even taking a moment to think about what he’s doing, and gambling away large sums when the answer to his problems is literally handed to him. Bennett’s moronic actions never make any sense. He simply does things without any reasoning behind it. The biggest issue with this is that it makes it impossible for the audience to care what ultimately happens to him.

Further unnecessarily complicating things is the fact that there is no discernible reason why any loan shark would ever allow Bennett to rack up the kind of debts he does (to the tune of $260,000). Sure, he comes from a wealthy family, but he is a college professor and apparently, at least to some degree, estranged from his family. Although he drives a BMW, there is nothing about his lifestyle that suggests extravagance or opulence. Why anyone would loan him that kind of money is never explored or explained.

And then there is the affair he inexplicably begins with Amy (Brie Larson), a talented student in one of his classes. While everything else in his life is approached with little thought to the consequences, he seems reluctant to involve himself in an inappropriate relationship with a student. Yet this reluctance doesn’t stop him from giving in to her advances. His hesitation doesn’t fit in with everything we are led to believe about Bennett, and feels like a contrived and unnecessary plot point when her life is also threatened if he doesn’t pay his debts. It’s unfortunate that Larson isn’t given much of an opportunity to shine in the part. Her scenes are few and mostly inconsequential.

gamblerThe film isn’t all bad, of course. Mark Wahlberg does a good job with the character he is given. This performance is noteworthy, though never quite as great as some of his previous roles. He plays a despicable Bennett well, appearing in every scene of the film and playing well against his co-stars.

Stealing the show is John Goodman as loan shark Frank. His few scenes are pivotal to the film and provide the only insight into Jim’s character as Frank knows him well and seems to be the only person who understands him. Frank, with his shaved head and love of steam rooms, is an intimidating, imposing figure, and the fact that he and Jim are on friendly terms is the only clue that Bennett has a long history in this seedy world.

This is a film that could have been great. It had the elements of a fantastic effort with a great cast, a talented writer, and a director that still needs to prove himself. But it falls short in the storytelling. Ultimately, the end product is unsatisfying and, much like the affair Bennett has with his student, it feels contrived. It’s too bad for a film that had so much going for it.