The Gambler, a remake only in name of the 1970s James Caan film, is a star vehicle for Mark Wahlberg, who also produces. The draw for Wahlberg, clearly, is being reunited with The Departed script writer William Monahan.
Instead of tackling the subject of addiction, like the original movie, the updated Gambler focuses on wealthy, privileged, intelligent, novelist turned English professor, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg). Honest to a fault and struck with a sense of ennui, frustration at his existence, a search for pure truth and a big helping of nihilism and narcissism, Jim sets about reducing himself to nothing. He uses gambling to ensure he hits rock bottom. Along the way he borrows big from violent loan sharks and his distraught, stuck up mother (Jessica Lange). He also becomes enthralled with one of his brighter, more talented and beautiful students Amy (Brie Larson).
The film is shot, edited, acted and scored as if it was made in the 70s. The slower pacing, the muted colour palette, the criminal underbelly setting and the stylised dialogue echos the work of Bob Rafelson or William Friedkin. This is no bad thing and actually it's the look, sound and style of the film that is the best thing it has going for it.
The performances are fine, with Michael Kenneth Williams a definite stand out, and the film is peppered throughout with the sort of professional character actors that never turn in a lazy moment. Nice to see veteran George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, Naked Gun) crop up for a little during the opening too.
Wahlberg, who is in practically every shot, is definitely going for something we've not seen from him before and trying really hard. He is a passive, tired, disengaged character for a lot of the film and arrogant, aloof and opinionated for the rest of it. Jim Bennett is a fairly unforgivable, selfish character who has a privileged existence, wants for nothing and yet is systematically throwing it down the toilet because it doesn't feel 'real'. The audience has a tough time empathising, engaging or understanding his actions for most of the film.
The main problem with all of this, is that Mark Wahlberg's screen presence is a bit too self assured, swaggering and capable. There's not really a sense of desperation or vulnerability to him. In a surprisingly similar role, in 1970's Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson excels. He has just enough charm, anger, confusion and soul to bring the audience on his existential and physical journey. Wahlberg, by comparison, seems cold and detached. This is unfortunate as I think he's giving a really good performance with a script he clearly believes in. He has also surrounded himself with actors he admires greatly.
The detached feeling of the film is not helped by the fact that the love story, such as it is, between him and 'gifted' student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) seems lacking in chemistry and never justified in the way the plot requires it to be. Amy is seemingly, in the script, meant to be something of a goal, new path or saviour for Jim but the scenes just aren't there in the film to really expain or highlight this fact.
Saying all this, though, The Gambler is a well made, well intentioned, interesting attempt at a throw back character piece. It tries to say something about capitalism and the confines of western culture while maintaining its stylistic cool and not many films can say that. You should not condemn people for trying however and so while The Gambler may have failed to engage with this reviewer intellectually or emotionally, there is still much to enjoy here for fans of more thinky/talky nihilistic cinema.