The Gambler is commercial suicide (thankfully)

A high-profile Mark Wahlberg drama based on a nearly forgotten 1974 film? How good of an idea can that be? Not so bad, as it turns out.


Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson

Though it may not appear so at first glance, there’s something deeply weird about The Gambler’s existence. It’s a remake of a well-regarded but not particularly culturally influential film starring James Caan; the original’s chief contribution to pop culture is that it was written by madman auteur James Toback, who is still far from a household name. It’s a dark, fairly low-key drama that stars the anything-but-low-key Mark Wahlberg, and it’s getting a prestige release on Christmas Day despite the fact that it’s downbeat and not very audience-friendly. It’s a remake that has absolutely no reason to be one, considering that the financial gain from name recognition of the original can probably be quantified in four digits. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a roomful of executives deciding to give the green light to such a dim commercial prospect in this day and age, and yet here we are.

Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) has always had life handed to him on a silver platter. The grandson of a wealthy old man (George Kennedy), he’s nevertheless turned his back on the family fortune to become an unpopular novelist, a literature professor and an out-of-control gambler prone to all-or-nothing flights of fancy. He’s $240-grand deep with a Korean gangster (Alvin Ing), so he borrows money from another gangster (Michael K. Williams) that he immediately loses at blackjack. Given seven days to pay back the Koreans, he gets another loan from the bear-like Frank (John Goodman, in top form), which he summarily loses on an all-or-nothing bet, after which he borrows money from his mother (Jessica Lange), which he proceeds to…. you get the idea. Meanwhile, he starts a tentative relationship with a student (Brie Larson) who also happens to be a cocktail waitress at the illegal gambling parlour he favours. (There are a few simple tricks you can use for determining the safety of an online casino; We have sourced the top five $1 deposit casinos in Canada.)

Director Rupert Wyatt (evidently thrown an auteurist bone by the studio after the surprise success of the Planet of the Apes reboot he directed) leans heavily on the film’s Golden Decade roots, assembled in a scruffy-yet-slick style that emphasizes mood over content. Idiosyncratic music choices (Billy Bragg, Rodriguez) pair with a mismatched visual style that mirrors the character’s impulsive nature. The choices are not always the best ones (Wyatt’s insistence on out-of-focus establishing shots is perplexing) but they’re consistently interesting, drawing on influences like Altman’s California Split (not to mention The Long Goodbye). William Monahan’s script favours long, flowery, syntax-ignoring monologues that Wyatt is more than happy to indulge, letting the cast (particularly Williams and Goodman, who hasn’t had this much fun without the Coens in who knows how long) chew through the scenery — which brings us to my next point.

Mark Wahlberg can be a great actor, but he’s first and foremost a great persona. His cadence and whispery, Southie-flecked delivery are very much his own, which can work in the film’s favour or to its detriment. The Gambler gets the full Wahlberg treatment in that his performance does both. Needless to say, Wahlberg is very believable as an out-of-control gangster, but much less convincing as an impassioned literature prof who believes that writing is not worth doing unless it is done by certified geniuses. The lecture scenes have an almost parodic Saturday Night Live quality to them as Wahlberg sits on desks yelling about Shakespeare and the Earl of Oxford. Having lost 30 pounds and grown his hair into a shapeless shag for the occasion, Wahlberg makes a valiant attempt at going against type but really only succeeds at highlighting his unwavering Wahlbergness.

James Toback has apparently disavowed this remake of the film; it’s not hard to imagine why the famously explosive, blustery madman wouldn’t take kindly to his work being reappropriated into a slick Hollywood vehicle, which is strange because that’s precisely what The Gambler isn’t. It’s rough around the edges, jittery and imperfect and more than a little indulgent to both its star and its director. It’s the kind of thing we don’t really see much of anymore, which makes its missteps (including a bullshit happy ending that stays considerably from the original’s) all the more interesting. Toback made a documentary some years back about his struggles trying to raise financing for a mid-budgeted drama starring Alec Baldwin — the film has yet to be made, yet an A-list star and a director of blockbusters have just approximated their version of a Toback film and released it in multiplexes. It’s commercial suicide all the way down the line — and I have to say, I kind of respect that. ■

The Gambler hits theatres on Dec. 25

Watch the trailer here.