Literature professor and gambler Jim Bennett's debt causes him to borrow money from his mother and a loan shark. Further complicating his situation, is his relationship with one of his students. Will Bennett risk his life for a second chance?
Jim Bennett is a risk taker. Both an English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Bennett bets it all when he borrows from a gangster and offers his own life as collateral. Always one step ahead, Bennett pits his creditor against the operator of a gambling ring and leaves his dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy mother in his wake. He plays both sides, immersing himself in an illicit, underground world while garnering the attention of Frank, a loan shark with a paternal interest in Bennett's future. As his relationship with a student deepens, Bennett must take the ultimate risk for a second chance.Written by
The equivalent of watching interesting parts struggling to find something to work with that shows their importance
The seedy underworlds that are often associated with gambling and the mafia are worlds that loan themselves to film, for they breed certain characters, themes, and ideas that simply captivate, and provide audiences with ideas as to how a subculture operates. Having said that, it's a shame in the last few years, we've gotten a small, mediocre array of these films when the genre used to be dominated by the likes of people like Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro, who knew how to create arresting films based off the mob. With Rupert Wyatt's The Gambler, a remake of the James Caan film of the same name coming at the end of the year following a recent trailer release like the film's release was an afterthought, we get another middling effort to showcase strong acting talent but mediocre-to-average screen writing as we watch a captivating idea be squandered by a bloated yet underdeveloped plot.
Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a literature professor and a gambling addict, who doesn't know the meaning of quitting when he is up. Bennett rolls away at his odds until he is completely out of money, losing whatever winnings he accumulated and then some. He is in debt to numerous loan sharks, one of which Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams), who, along with a Korean loan shark, informs him he has seven days to pay back a $240,000 debt or else he is whacked. Jim looks toward Frank (John Goodman), a ruthless, but almost philosophical man, who proposes to loan him the money but fears of his ability, or lack thereof, to compensate him on his investment. Meanwhile, Jim tries to keep it together in the classroom, as he stands before a group of clearly disinterested men and women, who aren't in the classroom to learn anymore than he is in there to teach. However, he takes a liking to Amy (Brie Larson), one of his students who shows great potential in writing. When discussing the idea of following one's dreams as a writer in class, he informs the remainder of his students that, "if you're not a genius, don't even bother."
Jim's thoughtless cynicism and complete disregard for his own life, without the merit or humor or any cogent philosophy or backstory, robs him of any ability to even be a tolerable anti-hero. He's a miserable character, with the only bonus of being played by Wahlberg, one of the finest leading actors working today, who communicates Jim's moroseness nicely throughout the film. Wahlberg is surrounded by other performers, who work equally well at matching his level of conviction, specifically Goodman, whose few scenes in the film amount to greatness in a predictable yet pleasant manner. Goodman delivers a great monologue about the luxury of having "f*** you money," which he estimates to be about $2.5 million. With that net worth, you don't need to take orders from anyone, and if anyone angers you, you can give them the old seven-letter phrase with great effect.
Wahlberg and Goodman are great fun to watch because they've played these kind of wayward characters in prior films, so they know the landscape and the material is fresh in their heads. However, screenwriter William Monahan (who also wrote Scorsese's Departed) threatens to lose control of the project when he writes in multiple different characters and several subplots, not developing enough to reach the level where we care about them. We already have an unlikable main character, and we can't rely on much of the cast to feed our desire to find someone we can at least sympathize with, so all we have is Jim and some bookies-turned-philosophers when the screenplay calls for it to supply character interest. Even the love story Monahan tries to concoct doesn't work, and at that point, we are essentially watching a collection of an interesting parts struggling to find something to work with while masquerading in a backdrop of strong cinematography by Greig Fraser (who also did this year's Foxcatcher, along with Zero Dark Thirty) and some well-executed musical cues that emphasize rather than embellish key moments.
The Gambler, as a whole, however, doesn't work because despite the high stakes and the large risk factor, we see the carelessness and the disinterest of our main character run so freely throughout the film, that we ask ourselves why we should care that this man is seven days away from a grisly demise. We can appreciate the actors, the way the setting is presented, and the music we're provided with to a certain degree, but when it comes time to dive into these characters, their motivations, and their will to live, they have very little, so why are we watching their lazy contentment with such a dour existence?
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Michael K. Williams, and Brie Larson. Directed by: Rupert Wyatt.
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