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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Gambler 2014 * * * Stars

The GamblerDirector: Rupert Wyatt
Year: 2014
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson

Back in 1996, I read a review on a film called Sleepers. In said assessment, the critic who wrote it noted that the actors were having quote unquote, "bad hair and face days". Cut to 2014 and The Gambler really hammers that same notion here. Co-star Brie Larson fashions a facially caked, makeup experiment gone afoul, Jessica Lange sounds completely different and appears somewhat weathered (Tootsie wasn't made yesterday and I have to realize that), and lead Mark Wahlberg, well he comes off looking like a latter day Jim Morrison after a three day meth binge bender. Crazy.

Anyway, The Gambler is a remake of the 1974 James Caan film (of the same name). I haven't yet seen the original but my colleague has (Cole Pollyea of Cole's Collective Critiques on Film). In his review he stated that Caan's performance was ultimately colorless, sluggish, and bland. Wahlberg donning the hat in the same role (but with a different character name), is none of these things. He's actually quite good. He does what he can despite the notion that "Gambler's" script in hindsight, only looks good on paper. And about that script by William Monahan (he penned The Departed). It's a juicy mess. It forces you to listen to the actors speak in philosophical, badassery-type ways. While that's all fine and dandy, the dialogue doesn't always make complete sense and it sometimes fails to move the story along.

Directed by the guy who made Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt) and produced by the same dude responsible for the inaugural 1974 entry (the unrivaled Irwin Winkler), The Gambler probes the mind of college professor turned blackjack addict, Jim Bennett (Mark "I've donned blue lips" Wahlberg). By day he berates his fellow students with Shakespearean interludes. By night, he's betting ten grand a hand via the tables at an underground casino. Things get a little hairy when he realizes that he owes a monster amount of gambling debt to three hardass loan sharks. One is the actual casino owner (Alvin Ing as Lee), one is a large man who has a penchant for killing someone's entire blood line for failure to pay up (Frank played by John Goodman), and one is another loan shark (Michael K. Williams as Neville) who has a hard on for winning money off the shaving of points (college basketball games to be exact). Bennett seems to take his monetary problems in stride and his pulse doesn't quite reach 70. He's also gotta make time for his student love interest (Brie Larson as Amy Phillips) and his angry mother (Jessica Lange, who loves to either hit or scream at Wahlberg's man child). Oh and he's still got college homework assignments to grade (yeah right).

As a tightly edited 111 minute vehicle, The Gambler is splashy and flashy not to mention rough and ready. It's like a homage to the go-getter genre films of the late 1970's. Its look and feel are courtesy of Australian cinematographer, Greig Fraser (he shot Killing Me Softly which in dearth and tone, lends itself as almost a companion piece to "Gambler"). And its focus front and center, hinges on the fate of Jim Bennett. This is a hero (if you want to call him that) who you desperately want to not screw up. When he gets $260,000 from Mommy, you pray to the good lord that he won't blow it by beating his gambling addiction (along with faithfully paying off his debts). Bully for that. Bennett is a compulsive nitwit, a puppy who keeps pooping on the floor. This dog just won't hunt if you know what I mean.

Wahlberg's Bennett is also gaunt looking (it's rumored that Mark lost an unbelievable 60 pounds for the role) and he deals in ironies, self-loathing, and the notion of "building one's own hurdles". He's probably suicidal (though it's not fully revealed), doesn't really like himself, hinges on relegated self destruction, is unafraid of death, and despite his nasty predicament, still manages to act above or beyond anybody else (this kid's got some serious cojones, let me tell ya). Wahlberg as usual brings his fast-talking, manneristic style of delivering lines via the part. You hate him in the first half of the film only to root for his so-called protagonistic ways towards the end. Larson (acting mostly with her eyes like in Don Jon), Goodman, Lange, and Williams also provide strong if not limited work throughout. I'll use food metaphors in saying that their characters are merely appetizers whereas Mark's the main entree and he's in pretty much every frame.

When it's all said and done, I didn't mind the ending of The Gambler which seems to have caught a lot of flak from critics and audience members across the country. For my dollar, I couldn't fathom a whole lot of other ways that things could have been wrapped up. Its final sequence sort of reminded me of a neutered, less compelling version of 1998's Rounders. The only difference is that Matt Damon's Mike McDermott is a levelheaded, nice guy as opposed to Wahlberg's Bennett who comes off as seriously damaged goods. Oh and speaking of Bennett, he's obviously adhered to a sickness, a disease if you will. Listen, I don't know much about the art of gambling but after seeing this movie, I realized that these degenerates don't give one iota about making actual profit. They also don't care how it effects their loved ones safety and well being. They are just in it for the thrill, the rush of being up and even more so, the rush of being down. How sad.

Pitying slickness aside, 2014's The Gambler has decent, unhinged supporting performances that sometimes feel like two-part cameos. It also has an underdeveloped love story (between Larson and Wahlberg's characters) that negates tip of the tongue disappointment to it. And despite its campaigned December release, this Paramount distributee probably won't even get so much as a sneeze from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But it entertains you with a dirtied-up, drenched feeling that hides beneath the foreboding California sunshine. Its a "gamble" that at least breaks even.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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