Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler attempts to combine a classic Hollywood thriller with one man’s very vocal existential crisis, but despite including golden boy Mark Wahlberg it ultimately fails in its attempts to effectively raise the stakes and set its audience’s pulse racing.
The film is based on the underwhelming Karel Reisz 1974 original starring James Caan, which similarly missed the mark despite talent and a sound plot. Gambler follows Wahlberg’s Jim Bennet as he begs, steals and borrows from loan sharks, gangsters, his mother and a rather terrifying bald John Goodman to fund his seemingly endless desire to lose, despite the destructive cost. The opening sequence is from the point of view of Bennet’s car, tracking silently along a wide empty road to nowhere. Then we see Bennet sitting emotionless at the bedside of his dying father, only to find him moments later entering an underground LA Casino, run by the erstwhile Mister Lee (Alvine Ing) to whom he already owes $200,000. An initial lucky streak at the Black Jack table quickly turns sour and Bennet borrows another $50,000 from loan shark Neville (The Wire’s Omar, Michael Kenneth Williams). This extra top up soon heads the same way as the rest of Bennet’s money – lining the pockets of those who run the casino – and he finds himself with just seven days to pay both parties. Story set in motion.
If Bennet’s actions appear at first glance staid and churlish, his reasons soon become clear when he heads straight from the casino to work. By day he’s a literary professor (and failed novelist) teaching at an LA university that seems to specialise in students on sports scholarships, who would rather be anywhere but listening to him monologue on about the modern day relevance of Shakespeare and later Camus, with whose The Outsider he pertains to share a similar existential crisis. The origins of this crisis soon come to light when Bennet visits his mother Roberta (a heavily botoxed Jessica Lange), a wealthy widow idling away her days playing tennis with toy-boys. Bennet is convinced that his gambling addiction is an illness that he has no power over, but the truth is perhaps more like classic reactionary rebellion against the immense wealth of his family. This fact is confirmed when his mother bails him out and, instead of paying off his debts, he heads to Las Vegas and spanks the lot in one continuous session at a Black Jack table. This is one of the film’s more imaginative sequences, this time with student love interest and fellow self-loather Amy (Brie Larson) in tow. Now we realise that Bennet wants to lose, and won’t be happy until he’s exhausted every financial resource he can think of. However, reality sets in when Neville makes it clear it’s not just his own life that he’s playing with, and his dear old mum and young student love interest could also be hurt should he fail to pay up on time.
To the background sound of a college glee club singing a none-too-subtle version of Creep by Radiohead, Bennet dumps Amy for her own protection and then approaches the bald Goodman, appearing as gangster friend Frank, who buys his debt and fronts his stake for one final gamble. The whole story then comes to a head on one final role of the roulette wheel, leaving Bennet’s future up to chance. Or is it chance? Bennet’s problem – like most gamblers – isn’t that he habitually loses, it’s that he doesn’t know when to walk away.
The gambling scenes are by far the most compelling in the film, and were it to maintain this momentum it would be the more effective thriller it is aiming to be. However, William Monahan’s script insists on long drawn out sequences in the lecture theatre where Bennet pontificates on life the universe and everything. This is presumably in an attempt to make him appear as a deeper and more complex character, but results in distraction from the main thrust of the story and risks leaving the viewer feeling lectured at, rather than delving into Bennet’s supposed existential crisis. A more experienced director than Rupert Wyatt may well have had the gumption to trim some of Bennet’s monologues, instead letting the visceral self-destructive slide into ruin and eventual redemption play out through the action.