Gambler, The (2014)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/28/14 00:55:30

"A movie about being all-or-nothing that has some great parts."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

At one point in this version of "The Gambler" (a remake of a 1974 film itself inspired by a Dostoevsky novella), a character mentions that he doesn't understand suicide; as vulnerable as he feels at that moment, the type of despair that leads there is utterly foreign to him. I wonder if the idea behind this movie was to make feelings that may be similarly foreign to a viewer - the compulsions of a gambler and those around him - more tangible. If so, it succeeds fitfully, but at least surrounds the moments where it does with style.

The gambler in question is Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), an associate professor of literature in Southern California, who has an impressive if risky run to begin a night but eventually winds up just pushing his debt higher, north of a quarter million dollars owed between Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the owner/operator of many underground casinos in the Los Angeles area, and Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a smart but ruthless loan shark. Though his family - particularly mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) - is wealthy, he is not, and the fact that Lee and Baraka both want to collect within a week, makes star student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) seeing him while serving drinks in one of Lee's establishments and the dean pushing him to pass basketball star Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) despite him texting throughout class seem like small potatoes.

Lamar is the one who says he can't understand suicide, and writer William Monahan also gives him the lines which best explain Bennett in a nutshell - that everything is all or nothing with him, and if one is not phenomenally successful at what he attempts, then there is no point whatsoever. It's a terribly unhealthy attitude that Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt push hard with mixed results: There are scenes of Professor Bennett starting off from a good place and veering off into things one would rather an educator not say that are mesmerizing in just how horrifying they are, and there is a moment or two when Bennett is up where the audience can see just how euphoric this can make a person feel. Lacking, perhaps, is similar clarity on the other side - why doesn't losing seem as terrible as winning is wonderful? The later parts of the movie, where Bennett actually finds himself caring enough about other people to be motivated on their behalf but still compelled to make a game out of it doesn't have nearly the force behind it as the earlier self-destruction.

Nuance, unsurprisingly, is more difficult than grandeur, and in some ways Wyatt, Monahan, and their cast have a harder time getting at what makes the less broadly-played characters tick. Brie Larson never gets the moment that says what Amy is all about, and never gets to do much with a script that pulls her in two different directions. Anthony Kelley grabs a couple of scenes and makes Lamar into a character who would be worth a film of his own, but we never get to see what motivates his choices at crucial junctures. It's also worth noting that Kelley plays Lamar as sharp enough to undercut Bennett's claim that he's not that bright (which confusingly seems like it would better apply to the other great student-athlete in the story).

On the other hand, there are a lot of actors who, when given a few great scenes with meaty speeches, make the most of their opportunity: Jessica Lange is fantastic as the mother whose relationship with her son is fraught with anger and contempt, and John Goodman is wonderfully monstrous as a cold-bloodedly vicious loan shark, reptilian where Baraka is hot-blooded. And, speaking of Baraka, Michael K. Williams seems to have a ball as the character, getting the sort of improbably erudite dialogue that could knock one out of an otherwise realistic movie or mark a character as out-of-place, but he makes it work. Though it likely lasts only for the week the story spans, the relationship between Baraka and Bennett is probably the most natural in the movie, with the pair linked by their need to take risks, understanding one another and despising their counterparts for that.

Williams gets the most and best chances to play off Mark Wahlberg, who may perhaps have had a better role at some point or another, but not one that lets him play against type to this extent. Bennett is book-smart and blue-blooded in the way that Wahlberg seldom gets to play, and it's nifty to see him replace the sweet humility that often tempers his blue-collar characters' cockiness with a sharply observed cynicism that the character most fiercely turns on himself. It's a compelling performance from anyone, and enjoyably surprising coming from Wahlberg.

Wyatt has enough good performers with scenes that let them take center stage and run for a while that he can stitch together quite the watchable movie out of them; it's theatrical at times, but there's nothing wrong with watching good actors get the most out of well-chosen words. Wyatt and cinematographer Greig Fraser don't go for the graininess or murkiness that many films set in this sort of underground environment would go for, instead choosing a sharp, unapologetically digital look that heightens the clarity with which the characters see themselves, while the score by Jon Brion & Theo Green often gives way to a well-curated playlist that always fits the action without seeming too obvious about it.

The performances and the filmmaking glue holding them together are good enough that it's easy to ignore how other parts of the film are kind of underdone, and that by the end, we're probably not that much closer to understanding what goes on inside the head of a gambler, whether in the general case or this specific one. It will probably suffer a little when re-watched in its entirety, but it works once, and it's got more scenes worth revisiting than most movies do.

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