Film Review: The Gambler (★★½)

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gambler_ver2If there’s one thing I love in a movie, it’s a supporting performance that helps elevate the final product from mediocrity. In the case of The Gambler, the lead performance of Mark Wahlberg, while good, pales in comparison to the supporting turn from John Goodman. Had the roles been reversed and this been a film about Goodman’s character, I might have liked it better, quite frankly. Now, director Rupert Wyatt and writer William Monaghan‘s remake of the film of the same name has some definite style and wit to it, but you really do leave with the feeling that there’s just not enough to it all. This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch, and it does feature one of Wahlberg’s better performances, but aside from Goodman, the supporting characters are all wasted and for the most part it’s style over substance. The Gambler wasn’t particularly material crying out to be remade, and it shows. This is a flashier and more upbeat flick than the original, which gives it a new identity for sure, but also robs it of some of its power. The Gambler isn’t something to avoid (and it’s better than Christmas releases like Unbroken, if not by much in that case, though not as good as Big Eyes), but it’s a holiday release that isn’t crying out for you to run and see.

The film follows college professor, failed author, and compulsive gambler Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) as sinks into more and more trouble. He teaches a literature class where he mostly berates his students, including future tennis pro Dexter (Emory Cohen). The lone exception is Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), who he considers to be a genius. She’s also a waitress at a high stakes card game he frequents, so when she expresses interest in him, he initially pushes her away. He’s got bigger things to worry about than Amy’s persistence though, as he’s falling deeper and deeper into debt. First, he borrows money from his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange), then a dangerous gangster named Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) who will kill him if he doesn’t pay up. All this gets the interest of loan shark Frank (Goodman), who might be able to help Jim…or ruin him. Jim winds up playing all sides as best he can in an attempt to come out alive on the other end, including potentially rigging a basketball game involving one of his students (Anthony Kelley). His addiction is addressed, of course, but this isn’t that type of film in the end.

the-gambler-e1415134019112It’s always nice to see Mark Wahlberg in a more dramatic role like this, and you can tell that he’s fully invested. The material doesn’t really allow him to let loose, but it’s the type of performance you wish he did more often. His best scenes are with John Goodman and Jessica Lange, but that’s really no surprise, now is it? Goodman steals the show with his few scenes, while Lange is fine but underutilized for sure. In fact, if he had been given a few more scenes, it’s possible that Goodman could have finally gotten his first Academy Award nomination. They still fare much better than Brie Larson, who sadly is reduced to little more than a pretty face. She’s fine in the part, but it’s just not challenging at all. Emory Cohen, Anthony Kelley, and Michael Kenneth Williams are fair but not noteworthy at all, while the other supporting roles include Andre Braugher, Alvin Ing, George Kennedy, Domenick Lombardozzi, Leland Orser, and Richard Schiff, to name a few. They’re all forgettable though, sadly. It’s really designed to be Wahlberg’s show, though Goodman walks away with the movie easily.

Both Rupert Wyatt and William Monahan seem only mildly interested in James Toback‘s version of The Gambler, though they don’t particularly change too much. It’s never bad to avoid worshipping an original film that’s being remade, but here they just wind up making a rather anonymous movie. There’s no one thing that’s wrong with it, but the final product just leaves you wanting more. Credit to Monahan for some witty lines (mostly spoken by Goodman) and Wyatt for making a nice looking flick, but they’ve both done far more accomplished work in the past. Goodman really is the saving grace here. Wahlberg could have been too, but he suffers just like everyone else.

In the end, The Gambler should appeal to Wahlberg fans and those of us who love a nice Goodman supporting turn, but it’s the sort of would be awards player that should have been better than it ultimately is. It’s decent enough, but lacking in the kind of identity that would otherwise give it that little bit extra. If you’re set on seeing The Gambler, I won’t stop you, but I’m hardly going to encourage you either. It’s just that kind of a movie.

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