Saturday, January 10, 2015

Movie Review: The Gambler

The Gambler
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt.
Written by: William Monahan based on the 1974 film written by James Toback.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Jim Bennett), Jessica Lange (Roberta), Brie Larson (Amy Phillips), Michael Kenneth Williams (Neville Baraka), John Goodman (Frank), Alvin Ing (Mister Lee), Anthony Kelley (Lamar Allen), Emory Cohen (Dexter), Domenick Lombardozzi (Big Ernie), George Kennedy (Ed), Andre Braugher (Dean Fuller).

Like every film written by James Toback, the 1974 version of The Gambler is as much a personal exploration of Toback’s own tortured psyche as it is a story. That film told the story of a college professor, from a rich family, who gets in deep in debt with a bunch of loan sharks to feed his gambling habit. He isn’t a smart gambler – his basic strategy is to bet it all until he loses – riding the high while it lasts, the whole time knowing that it cannot last for long. He has a girlfriend (Lauren Hutton) – who is he basically horrible to, and throughout the movie you get the sense that you are watching a man trying to commit suicide – hoping to get so far in debt that he cannot get out, and someone will kill him. By the end of the movie, he has, once again, got himself out of debt – and decides to push even farther – in a confused ending that adds a degree of racism to a movie that never addressed it before.

I wasn’t a big fan of the original film – it was fine, with a great performance by James Caan, but the ending marred the film, and it moved slowly throughout. For some reason, producer-star Mark Wahlberg wanted to remake the film – a decision that is even odder when you see the film, since gone is much of what Toback brought to the film – and it is replaced by style and flash – the problematic ending has been changed to another problematic ending. Yet the film, for all its faults, is incredibly entertaining from start to finish. The original film was a flawed yet personal movie. The remake is flawed and impersonal – seeming more like the product of a studio focus group than a personal statement, like the original. Yet oddly, if I had to watch one of the films a second time – I would easily choose the remake.

Wahlberg reteams with The Departed screenwriter William Monahan in The Gambler. That film, probably gave Wahlberg his best role to date (it was his only Oscar nomination so far) – and the dialogue in The Gambler has the same snap as it did in that film – and Wahlberg handles it well. He is all false confidence and bravado – and the movie gives a chance to Wahlberg to swagger in a way he hasn’t in a little while. Like James Caan in the original, Wahlberg plays a college professor from a rich family, getting himself deeper and deeper in debt with the type of people he shouldn’t be in debt to. He owes over $200K to Mister Lee (Alvin Ing) – who wants his money, and warns of dire consequences if he doesn’t get it. To try and get it, he borrows money from Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) – who may just kill Wahlberg for sport, after he laughs at Neville when they cut cards. To get the money to pay them both, he asks his rich mother (Jessica Lange) – who gives it him, and then instead of paying off the debt, he blows it all at the tables once again. So he turns around, again, and borrows from Frank (John Goodman) – most often seen in a sauna, breathing heavily and sweating, but letting him know just how bad things will be if he doesn’t get his money. It looks like, once again, the main character is suicidal – wanting someone to kill him. But Wahlberg doesn’t really want to die – all he wants to do is completely destroy himself, his life, his relationship with his family, his job – and everything else. He hates himself so much he feels the only way to get better is to force himself to start from scratch.

The other main character in the film is Amy (Brie Larson) – one of Wahlberg’s students, who is working her way through school as a waitress in one of the underground casinos Wahlberg frequents. In class, Wahlberg basically berates his students – mocking their goals of becoming writers, saying that unless you’re a genius, you have no business trying to write. He thinks Amy is that genius – and lets the entire class know this as well, during one of his “lectures” – that seem more like public meltdowns than anything else. Still, Amy decides she likes Wahlberg – and seduces him into a relationship with her. The relationship doesn’t work in the movie – we never get to see why precisely Wahlberg thinks she is a genius, and the film never gives us an indication of what either character sees in the other. Still, Larson makes the character work a whole hell of a lot better than it has any right to. Larson is one of the best young actresses in Hollywood – so effortlessly charming, funny and sexy. She handles the fast dialogue with ease – and she has a real chemistry with Wahlberg, even if the screenplay doesn’t give the relationship any reason to work.

Like Larson, the rest of the cast is similarly game – handling the great dialogue well, and disguising the fact that all of the characters are one note. Especially great is Williams and Goodman – who are so good that I wish the whole movie was about them. The direction by Rupert Wyatt is also very good – yes, he overdoses on style, but with a screenplay that movies this fast, but is also this shallow, that helps. I especially liked the musical choices – which seemingly is mainly made up of great covers or 1970s songs – I guess if you’re remaking a 1970s film, you may as well fill up the soundtrack with remakes as well.
The Gambler is far from a great movie – but it is a hell of a lot of fun. No, it doesn’t have the personal touch of the original film, but I don’t think that’s really a bad thing. The original The Gambler felt rather self-indulgent, with a lot of retrograde attitudes about masculinity, gender, sex and race. The remake may lack a personal touch – but that’s not such a bad thing in this case.

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