The Gambler is a solid remake - a film that retraces the path of the original while carving out its own identity. The 2014 iteration isn't as good as its 1974 predecessor but it offers its share of small pleasures, not the least of which is the crisp, sharp dialogue that never loses its punch even when it veers close to the edge of pretentiousness. The autopsy of a man's gambling addiction is unflinchingly true and, although the ending has been changed to reflect a softer, less cynical resolution, it nevertheless seems appropriate for the material.
Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a university English lit professor whose in-class lectures are invested with passion. His class is comprised mainly of students looking to fill out their core liberal arts curriculum like basketball standout Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley). There are a few, however, who are there because they care about writing and reading, such as Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), who is singled out by Jim as the best writer in the class - before he embarks upon a doomed, quasi-romantic relationship with her. Away from the classroom, Jim's lone passion is for cards. He blows more at the table in one night than many men earn in several years and he finds himself deep in debt and sinking. His mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), is rich but she's reluctant to be an enabler until she realizes that without a handout, her son is likely to be the lead story on the evening news. Jim accepts the quarter-million in cash from Roberta and promptly loses it trying to make a big score.
The Gambler, based on James Toback's 1974 script (which was purportedly autobiographical with a little Dostoevsky thrown in for good measure), is strong in almost every aspect except defining and developing character relationships. The William Monahan screenplay struggles to solidify the connections between Jim and Amy and Jim and Lamar. It's almost as if the movie is missing whole scenes that would round out the interaction between these individuals. Even the Jim/Roberta relationship could have used some bolstering. There's a lot of tension between these two and we understand where at least some of it comes from but another scene or two with the criminally underused Jessica Lange wouldn't have hurt things.
There's a sense of unpredictability about the way in which The Gambler evolves. Jim isn't a nice guy; in a morally fair cinematic universe, he would be destined for a bad end. There's a streak of self-destruction in his actions; one character remarks that he seems to like losing. He possesses sufficient self-awareness to issue a warning to Amy to stay away from him but, when faced with a no-win situation, he takes the ethical low road because it offers his only chance of survival.
Although Wahlberg's lead performance is solid (if unremarkable), there are several effective supporting stints. Brie Larson, who has had a quiet 2014 following an active 2013, is good enough as Amy that we wish she had been given more screen time. Lange is heartbreaking as the cold, rich widow who blames herself on some level for her son's failure. But, towering them above them all is John Goodman as Frank, a wisecracking loan shark. Goodman's nearly perfect portrayal of the philosophical, larger-than-life gangster is worthy of Oscar notice, although it's unlikely he'll get much consideration.
Those who love the original The Gambler shouldn't feel threatened by Rupert Wyatt's take on the material. Unlike many remakes, this one isn't merely determined to regurgitate a cosmetically altered version of the story for a new audience; Wyatt and Monahan show respect for the source without being enslaved by it and the resulting story is worth seeing on its own merits.
© 2014 James Berardinelli