All-In and Drawing Dead (Movie Review: “The Gambler”)
Gambling has never appeared so unbearably dull as in the dreadful remake of “The Gambler,” starring Mark Wahlberg, now out in theaters.
The movie has about as much intensity as a losing keno ticket.
Based on a rarely-seen and little shown 1974 gritty masterpiece starring James Caan, this ill-advised reincarnation directed by Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) lacks any of the realism, the energy, the atmosphere, or the deeper philosophical undertones of the far more genuine original. Although the plot seems to be etch-a-sketched from the initial draft written 40 years ago, this is a totally different film. Unfortunately, nothing comes across as an improvement. This especially applies to a modified storybook ending.
Title protagonist, Jim Bennett (Wahlberg), has enjoyed a privileged life since birth. He grew up in a wealthy Southern California family, eventually became a published novelist, and now teaches literature at a prestigious university in Los Angeles. He’s good looking, drives a fancy car, and lives in a million-dollar condo. He seems to have everything in life going for him. But that’s not enough.
Bennett has a not-too well hidden darker side, which is the self-destructive compulsion to risk everything he can get his hands on (or borrow) in order to try and win it all, whatever “all” means. He gambles far more money than he makes in his modest salary or can possibly ever hope to repay, most of his action obsessively played out at a local underground casino owned by a Korean mobster. Despite running up ridiculous amounts of debt with various mob figures and loansharks, Bennett never seems to take his situation seriously. Not once does Bennett show fear, or remorse. Never once does he reveal any awareness whatsoever of the danger he’s facing, owing so much money to the wrong people. By the way, one of these underworld figures is played somewhat amusingly by John Goodman, who shifts into badass overdrive and chews up every scene he’s in like a ham sandwich on rye. But even the beastly greatness of Goodman isn’t nearly enough to save a horrid film.
“The Gambler” has so many shortcomings that it’s difficult to know where to begin. But let’s start with the fatal flaw of making gambling boring throughout the story, which probably seems incomprehensible to anyone who’s ever wagered more than $25 on a hand of blackjack. How is this even possible? How are scenes littered with $40,000 bets — about what our hero makes in six month’s time — so utterly lifeless? At the very least, filmmakers could have portrayed the temptation of gambling as a sort of rush pipeline. Instead, we’re lulled into indifference by the time Bennett lays down his biggest bets, a fatefully problematic flaw in a story purportedly about gambling. Why should we even care about this loser at all, or want to know what happens to him? The trouble is, we don’t. He doesn’t care about his fate, so why should we? Indeed, there’s so little to care about. Nothing here to see. Time to move on, folks.
Bennett isn’t the least bit likeable or sympathetic, which makes Wahlberg’s portrayal far less compelling to watch than Caan’s original effort. The first portrait was far edgier and revealed a dual personality which the remake lacks. This is a powerful distinction about most compulsive gamblers — and I’ve known many. Most of those afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorders have a deep desire to be loved and appreciated, one of the motives that fuels their addiction. When compulsive gamblers win and have lots of money to spend, they’re often the life of the party. They love showing off. But not this guy (Wahlberg). The film flat out gets it wrong and doesn’t make any attempt to reveal what compulsive behavior is really all about. Besides, even when he wins a bet or goes on a lucky streak, we all know he’s just going to gamble it away moments later.
Ho hum. So much for drama.
Shooting on location in Los Angeles was a huge mistake. L.A. certainly has a vibrant gambling subculture, and could provide a ripe backdrop for a good script about a compulsive gambler (think “California Split”). Then again, it’s not exactly New York or Las Vegas. Manufacturing a seedy fictional underground club run by Asians which so easily hands out revolving quarter-million dollar credit lines to teachers isn’t very realistic. Besides, there are plenty of real cardrooms where action could have taken place (Commerce, Bicycle Casino, etc.), casinos within a few hours drive (Morongo, Barona, etc.), or Las Vegas easily within reach. Yet, all the movie’s gambling action (limited to blackjack, roulette, and one bet on a college basketball game) takes place in just two places — the underground Asian club and one unnamed casino near Palm Springs. That’s it. This gambler sure doesn’t get out very much.
Wahlberg’s scenes as a college professor are abysmal. He insults everyone in his class, except for one pretty girl he announces as the most gifted writer of the bunch and the only student with any actual talent. Of course, this pretty young girl falls instantly for Professor Wahlberg, who isn’t exactly the ideal catch. Oh, what the hell, it’s a movie. Of course, she’s going to end up in bed with this loser. This contrived relationship is manufactured presumably to make Wahlberg seem more human. Instead, he ends up looking like even more of a jerk for the way he treats the girl. Then again, the foreseeable rejection is probably deserved. After all, she knew what she was getting into. What was she expecting, Tom Hanks?
Other characters in the movie are worth mentioning. Jessica Lange, who’s always reliable, plays Bennett’s lonely mother. She’s a terribly sad figure who tries her best to perform a good deed for her ungrateful son. Naturally, she too gets treated like shit. Then, there’s the legendary old teddy bear George Kennedy (yes, he’s still alive at age 91) who dies in the film’s opening scene. We’re not quite sure why this was relevant to the story, but it was sure nice to see Mr. Kennedy (a Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for the 1967 classic, “Cool Hand Luke”) still working in Hollywood. One hopes the death onscreen was just an act.
For all its many flaws, “The Gambler’s” most unforgivable defects are failing to either be interesting or teach us anything. We learn nothing much about gamblers, gambling, compulsive gamblers, or the motive behind such self-destruction. The movie doesn’t even make the attempt to help us better understand troubled people with the compulsion to risk far more than they possess, ultimately alienating themselves from everyone else and ruining their lives.
An interesting side note about this subject matter was viewing the movie at a local Las Vegas movie theater. One presumes this slightly more sophisticated audience would be more intrigued by the topic of gambling addiction. Yet, I sensed most of those around me were just as uninterested. There were few laughs sprinkled during the evening showing and no real edge-of-your-seat moments. The two words I’d use to describe the film were “instantly forgettable.” Audiences in proverbial Peoria are likely to be even less intrigued, meaning this box office loser is probably destined for DVD within three months.
Once again, Hollywood has crapped out and gone bust. A major movie studio has made yet another horrible movie about gambling. Following the box office disasters and critical failures which include “Lucky You,” “Two for the Money,” and “Lay the Favorite” one now must seriously worry if films with gambling themes are becoming box office poison. Quick. Name the last good movie made about gambling? One expects a long pause here.
Too bad filmmakers didn’t have a little more gamble in them while making this movie. Instead, they didn’t just decide to play it safe. They didn’t even bother to toss the dice. Well, they lost anyway. And so did we.
Line away. Seven out. Pay the “don’t.” As in, “don’t bother” wasting your time or your money.
RATING: 2 STARS [ON A 1-10 SCALE]
Spoiler Alert: Late in the movie there’s a ridiculous scene where Wahlberg presumably wagers $260,000 in cash at a Las Vegas casino on a regular season college basketball game. Such a thing wouldn’t be permitted. and even it if was accepted, the local FBI Office in Las Vegas would be notified immediately. There’s no way a cash transaction of this size would ever take place in a regulated casino environment. Oh, and one more thing: Even after the quarter-million dollar wager gets made, the game line doesn’t move!