Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Gambler crafts a largely unsympathetic protagonist that doesn’t earn the audience’s interest or respect. Rather, he’s a self-destructive, compulsive, and staunchly stubborn man that comes off as arrogant and selfish. There’s very little humanity within Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of Jim Bennett, a literature professor at a local university who gambles high stakes on the side. The film opens with his father on his death bed, telling Jim that he won’t be giving his son any of the inheritance that he would have presumably received, leaving Jim cold and penniless. His gambling debts rise and his mother disapproves, having raised Jim in a wealthy home and wanting the best for her son. But he is never satisfied with teaching and making a sizable income; instead, he wants to gamble away all of his money on games largely based on luck rather than skill. It makes for an oddly bland, lifeless, and shallow film, a departure for director Rupert Wyatt and writer William Monahan.
Jim’s in debt with many people, but his primary debt lies with Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a loan shark that revels in Jim’s addiction. He lends Jim money one night in order to pay back another man, but Jim’s plan backfires when he gambles away the money that he owes both; after winning big, Jim decides to go all in on the money that would pay off his debts. He loses everything. This is one of many moments where Jim’s decision to self-destruct overpowers his instinct to survive. The film jumps between that gambling life, the one that runs from late at night until the wee hours of the morning, and his professional life, where he teaches hundreds of English students about classic writings. His best student is Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a girl that he also sees in his free time. Their relationship is complicated and thinly defined; why, exactly, she continues to admire him after seeing his true self is beyond me.
The film lacks urgency and ultimately purpose with its central character. When a supporting character played by John Goodman becomes, far and away, the best character in the film, something’s wrong with the narrative. Particularly as he only occupies about twenty minutes of screen time, William Monahan’s script feels thinly conceived and narratively flat. There are monotonous, unexciting gambling scenes that hinge on us caring about his habits and winnings, but when we realize he’ll just keep doing it until he dies, it loses meaning. There isn’t much consequence when suspense is built around a card being flipped over. Should this character receive redemption? I’m not sure it really matters in the grand scheme of things, but director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t lend a helpful hand to making that question worthwhile. As a remake of the film from 1971, there doesn’t seem to be a proper updating to make the film feel necessary or relevant. Wyatt’s previous effort, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was more socially conscious and cognizant of its circumstances. The Gambler feels overly clichéd, repetitive, and dull, becoming one of the major disappointments of the holiday season.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)