Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Gambler
When Money Is No Object, Or Urgency, In A Movie

Mark Wahlberg as Jim Bennett in Rupert Wyatt's "The Gambler", based on Karel Reisz's 1974 drama.

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, January 4, 2015

If you've ever gambled -- and years ago I had -- the high you get from your winnings is indescribable.  You're invincible.  You quit while you're ahead.  Sometimes.  But at all times the sudden accumulation of cash IS the addiction, even more so, dare I say, than the cash itself.  You want more money -- sure.  But you want the excitement of reacquiring it.  So, yes, why not lay $500,000 on red 21?  The resulting $500,000 loss (and loss of your intelligence), a feeling that sticks in your gut after those initial delusions of grandeur, is utter despair. 

In Rupert Wyatt's "The Gambler," dour English literature professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) wears despair like the clingy dark suit he dons, even when he wins.  The skin he's in is too heavy for him to carry.  Jim's more relieved than happy when his bet made on a baize table cashes in.  Non-gentleman Jim is a gambler-holic, a disease rendering him deep in debt.  Jim's self-loathing makes him an active suicide campaigner.  With maximum contempt he begs for money from his wearied, estranged mother (Jessica Lange), from a Korean gangster, from a Jabba The Hut-like fixer (John Goodman) and Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a loan shark.  Beleaguered Jim has seven days to pay up or his life will be cut short. 

The words of warning Jim gets blow in the wind.  His couldn't-care-less demeanor is a metaphorical middle fingered-salute to all his would-be killers.  The film spends time in the forgotten areas of Los Angeles in film - Koreatown is an example, and there are many people of color, mostly mantelpieces regrettably, in the film's background that Jim surface-interacts with.  Perhaps he thinks he belongs with them.  He never voices his feelings on being a type of "other", so to speak.  But Jim acts very much as if he doesn't want the privilege he's cloaked in.

The gloom of "The Gambler," based on James Toback's script of Karel Reisz's 1974 same-titled drama, is marked by its tired, washed-out blankness.  Its atmosphere hangs in a darkened theater like doom.  Jim's baleful expressions are the film's anthem.  He's tired.  The film itself is tired and sputtering for air.  Everyone, on what is supposed to be a high-stakes stage -- where millions of dollars hang in the balance -- looks weary.

Except Michael Kenneth Williams.  His dynamism and sex appeal as an actor works to perfection here.  He possesses an electricity, sophistication and volatility.  The ice-cool intelligence and stature he brings to Neville bolsters credibility, something Mr. Wyatt's dry, removed exercise lacks.  Mr. Williams's wiliness -- he and his screen characters always seem three steps ahead of the rest -- pierces the film's melancholy Los Angeles veneer.  The philosophical Neville, charismatic, amiable with a sense of flair, is the good cop of this lot of heavies.  At least he doles out warnings.  His henchmen don't.

Mr. Williams's ice-cool intelligence as Neville was the lone reason for me to remain interested in "The Gambler".  "Tick tock," warns Neville, clad in black leather jacket and black Kangol hat.  (The cynical Jim has the nerve to mock Neville's chapeau.  Does he realize he's about $1 million large with the mockee?)  The real mockery however, is in failing to switch Neville and Jim's characters.  "The Gambler" at least becomes an instantly more engaging experience if Neville is the gambler and Jim the impatient collector.  It is this desperately-needed jolt of switcheroo, and a reworking of William Monahan's stale screenplay, that "The Gambler" warranted.

Brie Larson, whose presence deserves a lot better than this moody film, plays Amy, one of Jim's students.  She has limited aspirations but is a whip-smart, caring soul who sublimates her intelligence amid a class of mediocre students.  Amy however, somehow isn't smart enough to avoid a conflict-of-interest relationship with the wise-talking Jim.  Money has no ethics or allegiance, nor does Jim.  Amy, a lonely soul whose one-dimensional savior role in "The Gambler" reflects less on Ms. Larson than the failings of the writing, tries to give Jim the kiss of life he doesn't fully merit.  Ms. Larson isn't onscreen long enough to have a meaningful impact.

Mark Wahlberg has done good film work ("The Departed", "Boogie Nights", "Ted", "The Fighter") but he and most of the others here fail to generate the urgency or life this routine effort needed.  Jim's dispassion lacks passion.  He's biding his time.  There's often irritation and dispatch in the characters Mr. Wahlberg plays -- a percolation, a sense that at any time he will either erupt or be frustrated.  As an actor his sculpted figure, even in non-action films, often dominates. 

In "The Gambler" though, Mr. Wahlberg's physicality isn't a variable.  He wears a look that's beyond frustrated or flustered.  He's resigned to a fate, desperate to escape the crumbling walls of "The Gambler."  In other words Mr. Wahlberg is in role purgatory: here he fits neither the visage of a professor or the desperation of a gambler spinning his wheels.  It is said that Mr. Wahlberg called the role of Jim the most challenging of his career, and it shows.

"The Gambler" is a yarn about an uninteresting man who can't bare to live with life-or-death choices.  Jim wants freedom from decision-making at any price.  He's willing to pay it.  The dank, confining film Mr. Wahlberg skulks around in, donning designer eyewear, won't let him leave it, or its flaws and forced dilemmas.  Nor did it let me leave.  And I wanted to.  "The Gambler" clamped its icy pseudo-noir grip and false allure on me but I was suffocated by the monotony and cliché that emanated.  The juice -- Jim's temporary and empty victories, the respites from the inevitable -- only stalled this ho-hum experience.  I felt like a voyeur, not a participant, in a shell-game I already had the answers to.  And alas, I received no jackpot for my endurance.

In our saturating all-or-nothing, get-it-while-it's-hot media/money culture "The Gambler," a distant second to its 1974 predecessor, says that players must play and pretenders must cash out.  Jim knows he's a member of the latter class.  An impostor among the big boys.  His chips are a passport to an invisibility he's long craved.  Jim's emptiness, in his attire and in the money he disposes of, depresses him, and did me.  When it's all over he, and I, and likely you too, are glad.

"What's your plan, Jim?", Neville asks.  That question hangs in the air for a split-second.  "The Gambler," it turns out, doesn't have a plan.

Also with: Anthony Kelley, George Kennedy, Steve Park, Emory Cohen

"The Gambler" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity.  The film's running time is one hour and 51 minutes.

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