The Gambler is a movie a lot like Stone or London, by which I mean that it takes a pretty familiar story and then throws a bunch of philosophical jargon on top of it in order to make it seem profound — maybe working, maybe not working, but sounding far smarter than it actually is in doing so. It’s a remake of a 1974 film with the same title, although now instead of James Caan in the lead, we have Mark Wahlberg, who also co-produced the film.
Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a literature professor with a nihilistic outlook on life. He goes to high-stakes gambling rooms not to win but to lose. He doesn’t care. He’s over $200,000 in debt. I guess he figures that if worst comes to worst, he could just kill himself and that’ll be the end of it. He comes from an extremely rich family, is blessed with brains and looks, and is still unhappy. As one character puts it, he’s the perfect example of someone who had no problems and wound up forcing problems onto himself. He’s in deep to two different people, and he’s got seven days to find the cash.
Really, though, it’s not about the money. It’s about him “finding himself,” or perhaps just growing up. He gets the money a few days in and decides to gamble it all away. There are multiple solutions to his problem but he doesn’t take them because he’s not in the right mindset to do so. He needs to learn that life is precious, and that he’s been blessed with a good life, and all that stuff. Then his problems can basically solve themselves, or so it seems.
It’s hard to care about a main character like this. It’s really, really hard. He spouts pretentious dialogue to his students, he seems the least bit interested in his mother (Jessica Lange), and he mouths off to people to whom he shouldn’t mouth off, simply because he doesn’t care. And if he doesn’t, why should we? When the problem could have gone away but he decided that it shouldn’t just because, then it becomes increasingly difficult to root for him to succeed. Sure, it’s a journey of self-discovery, but, man, it’s tough.
The Gambler is never dull, however, because at some point you start to just want to see Jim get his face kicked in, and the fun comes from waiting to see that happen. Eventually, it does. Watching a protagonist simply not care might not make us root for him, but it does make for a compelling movie. He gets to say things to the gangsters that people simply don’t get to say. One of the ways he tries to get himself out of debt is to ask one of them — someone to whom he already owes $200,000 — to stake him another $100,000. As he’s getting beaten up, he continues to repeat this. It’s stupid, but it’s also funny and interesting to watch.
At the very least, The Gambler is a pretty movie, especially early on. There are several shots from cinematographer Greig Fraser that are incredibly gorgeous — so much so that you might actually notice them. There are also times when the film wants to look ugly, and it accomplishes this, too. It’s got a stylized aesthetic depending on the circumstance and situation.
It also features strong acting. Mark Wahlberg might be too sincere an actor to truly work as an uncaring nihilist, but some of the dialogue he gets to spout out and the rants he goes on some of his best work, and remind us of a less profane and more existential version of his character in The Departed. John Goodman is great in a limited role, getting to say the same kinds of lines as Wahlberg, but slightly more literal in form and function. If he had more than a few scenes, he’d be in consideration for major awards. Brie Larson is underused as a student/possible love interest.
The Gambler is a film that is moderately interesting, if only because of some of the philosophical and existential dialogue that it throws your way, but it’s hard to care about anything that happens because its protagonist is a nihilist who doesn’t care about anything that happens. Eventually, you accept this and root to see him fail, not succeed, and the film works as a comedy as he says things to gangsters that you don’t get to see people say to gangsters. It works as a distraction, but it’s more likely to irritate with some of its pretentiousness than it is to inspire.