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THE GAMBLER (review)

Review by Clay N Ferno
Produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, 
Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, David Winkler
Screenplay by William Monahan
Based on The Gambler by James Toback
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, 
Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Jessica Lange, 
Emory Cohen, George Kennedy, Richard Schiff

Mark Wahlberg stars in a remake of 1974’s The Gambler directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Escapist). No, not Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, that came out in 1980!  Wahlberg takes on the role of Jim Bennett, a college professor with a knack for getting in deep with the wrong kinds of people while feeding his gambling habit.

The rest of the cast features heavy hitters Jessica Lange as Jim’s long-suffering rich mother, John Goodman as Frank the whale and one of our favorite actors from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and The Wire, Michael Kenneth Williams.

Brie Larsen (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is Amy Phillips, a literature student working off her student loans nights at an upscale underground Hollywood casino. Amy knows her professor’s secret but is not the only student to be affected by the Bennett’s actions—mirroring points in the original film.

There is more than debt resolution and distracted teaching in this film, however. Wahlberg delivers a serious performance of a man bordering on being out of control with his habits but not an addict.

There may be more to what we see behind Jim Bennett’s blackjack face.

Some other reviewers and I were all invited to what could best be described as a meet and greet with director Rupert Wyatt when he was in town. There, we cozied up and in the least formal way imaginable—over tea sandwiches and soup in the lobby of a Boston hotel—to take advantage of a rare opportunity to talk to the director in an intimate setting. Being on the opposite coast of such regular occurrences, I took full advantage of this and broke bread with Mr. Wyatt and we all picked his brain about working with hometown Hollywood anti-hero Wahlberg his experiences making this movie. Martin Scorsese was once attached to The Gambler, but Rupert was the final directorial choice.

The original story for the 1974 film starring James Caan was written by auteur James Toback (Tyson, Bugsy) based on experiences he had with his own gambling addiction and as a teacher. Wyatt asserts that Bennett’s character in the 2014 remake is more complex than just being an addict and that his motivations are different.

When asked about gambling addiction in relation to the film, Rupert said, “Life may be more interesting with risks in your life…This movie is less about addiction than it is about quelling the demons in his life”. Mr. Wyatt went on to express that Jim Bennett in our film gambles more with his spiritual wealth than the material kind.

Other insights from our group conversation were that Goodman and Wahlberg were ‘all about the work’ and quite serious on set. Mark is able to be generous and surrender control to the directors he is working with even as he sinks deeply into his roles.

The director and crew actually went to underground Hollywood Hills poker games with high rollers to catch the vibe of the players, the parties and the smoky din of the place.

Back to the opening of the film, we are given that same palm-sweat you see in the final high stakes game in Casino Royale as you see Bennett bust on nearly all of his hands. The house lends him the necessary dough to ride it out, but unlike our Bond, the busts keep coming and the hole gets deeper.

Bennett gets in deep with the Koreans and with Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) and then even deeper with presumed underground boss Frank (Goodman). Some of the best lines in the film are delivered by Goodman in a schvitz. They tease these in the trailers. I’ll never get tired of seeing Goodman act!

By day, Bennett is teaching literature to a classroom of underachievers with some exceptions. Two athletes on scholarship, a tennis player and a basketball player are teased out of the lecture hall.

At a key moment, Bennett identifies that he has only one mental peer in the room, and that is with young writer Amy Phillips (Larson). He at once embarrasses her and challenges her in front of everyone with another key line of dialogue about her recent essay, “Did you write this because you believe in it, or because you thought that was what people want”? Perhaps her essay was written to impress her professor, perhaps to seduce him but considering that she knows he is an NYT best-selling author, she so much as shines the mirror back to his face about his own life later in the film.

Because of his need for money, Bennett approaches his widowed mother Roberta (Lange) to tap into his family’s fortune. She’s of course sick of this behavior and lets him know it. The mother/son relationship here is beyond broken, and when hundreds of thousands are handed to him after a bank transaction, Jim coldly leaves with not so much as a ‘thank you’. Lange’s screen time is short but of course amazing.

In all, and not to be colored by getting to meet the director—that just helped me understand a bit more—this movie rates high for me. I’ve been on a bit of a Scorsese jag lately, and while The Gambler didn’t reach the bombast or roller coaster ride those films provide, it did fulfill me as far as action an intrigue are concerned. There’s a ticking clock, romance, game rigging, large sums of money and seedy underbellies to be had. Wyatt directed a more subtle and intellectual film.

Wahlberg continues to impress as a multi-faceted actor, racking up Academy and Golden Globe, and Teen Choice nominations for serious roles in The Departed and The Fighter, an underrated comic book movie 2 Guns, and 2013’s Lone Survivor. We’ll say nothing of Transformers 4 but are looking forward to Ted 2 (heck, even Pain and Gain is worth a watch if you missed it).

What I’m driving at is, if you are a fan of Mark Wahlberg, this is a great leading role for him.

The drama in The Gambler is high test, and Rupert Wyatt was able to make a version of the movie that separates itself by 40 years and has more a modern philosophical grit than the first. Wyatt leaves you wondering what you would do in Jim Bennett’s shoes, given the same set of circumstances.

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