REVIEW BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
You might remember the original version of “The Gambler” as the auspicious 1974 screenwriting debut of James Toback. This screenplay was autobiographical and reflected his own struggles with compulsive gambling. The film portended a career, which included Toback’s screenplay for the Oscar-winning film, “Bugsy.”
For the remake, the setting is moved from New York to a sun-dappled California. Mark Wahlberg assumes the lead role as Jim Bennett, a college professor at a large west coast university. We see him, delivering impassioned lectures about the genius of Shakespeare and bemoaning the sorry state of the contemporary American novel. It turns out Jim himself is a published author of a very well-received novel. Later, in the film, we learn that, despite glowing reviews, the book netted a meager $17,000 for the protagonist.
In an opening scene, Jim is engaged in a deathbed discussion with his grandfather (George Kennedy, a one-time Oscar winner, long missing from the screen). Gramps had founded his own bank and is ranked seventeenth on the list of the state’s most wealthy people. He pointedly informs Jim that he won’t be leaving him with even a token inheritance. Ouch!
Hailing from a privileged class background, Jim was raised in a sprawling mansion by his divorcée mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange). Seething with self-loathing, Jim just can’t resist gambling. After all, it affords him an opportunity to lose and buttress his low self-esteem.
Early on, we are exposed to the parameters of Jim’s addiction. He visits an underground, Korean gambling den, operated by Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing). A frequent patron of the establishment, Jim is already deep in debt. He soon plunges even deeper. After a few winning hands of blackjack, his fortunes are quickly reversed. Following a disastrous pattern of doubling down on losing bets, he is soon $240,000 in debt.
At the casino, Jim meets a menacing gangster, Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams). Jim just can’t resist the impulse to insult Neville’s hat. Do we need more evidence of Jim’s self-destructiveness? The film provides it as Jim ends up borrowing $50,000 from this no-nonsense loan shark.
To clear his rapidly mounting debt, Jim borrows money from mommy dearest on the condition that he will quit gambling. Of course, Jim reneges on his promise. Instead of paying off his debt with the money, Jim squanders it on a new round of gambling.
Growing progressively more desperate, Jim visits a steam bath to meet another loan shark, the ironically named Little Frankie (John Goodman). In the interaction, Goodman’s character demonstrates conflicting predatory and avuncular instincts. It is the best scene set in a steam bath since Viggo Mortenson battled knife-wielding assassins in “Eastern Promises.”
Through Jim’s lectures, we meet several of his students. One of them, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), moonlights as a server in Mr. Lee’s casino and is aware of Jim’s decidedly non-professorial activities. Naturally withdrawn, she is trying to avoid attention and just blend in. However, Jim interrupts his presentation to publicly embarrass her. He singles out Amy as the only worthy writer in the whole class. Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) is the school’s star basketball player. He is tempted to jettison his scholastic pursuits to begin an N.B.A. career. Dexter (Emory Cohen) is a state tennis champion. Like Lamar, he has only perfunctory interest in academics. How will these students figure into the plot?
Wahlberg has come a long way since his Funky Bunch boy band days. In a succession of roles, he has proven to be a capable actor, while portraying decidedly non-intellectual characters, who hail from blue collar backgrounds. Here, he is convincing as a hyper-articulate cerebrotonic, who is the scion of an affluent family. If the staccato cadences of Wahlberg’s delivery recall his portrayal of a fast-talking cop in “The Departed,” consider that the screenplays for both films were written by William Monahan.
The supporting cast is tremendous. John Goodman adds to his gallery of memorable characters that he created in such prior films as “You Don’t Know Jack,” “Flight,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He’s only in a few scenes, but is worthy of Academy Award consideration. Michael Kenneth Williams contributes his customary urban grit, previously on display in “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”) wordlessly conveys her character’s introspective intellect. Anthony Kelley makes an impressive screen debut. He stunningly deconstructs the stereotype of African-American college jocks. Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing”) offers a brief moment of levity as the owner of a jewelry store.
William Monahan’s update of Toback’s original script offers a nicely revised blend of well-drawn characters, caustic dialogue, and unexpected plot twists. Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) does an excellent job at the helm. He adroitly maintains the pacing and tension of the film. Cinematographer, Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Foxcatcher”), provides an arresting visual text.
The score, credited to Jon Brion and Theo Green, is unobtrusively effective. The ancillary tunes on the soundtrack are a thoughtfully curated mix. They have been chosen by the director himself in conjunction with Theo Green and Clint Bennett. It mixes the classical strains of Chopin’s Etude 10, No. 3, American songbook courtesy of Cole Porter, Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” and more contemporary fare. In the latter category, the film includes a Billy Bragg cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” an capella version of the Radiohead tune, “Creep,” by Scala &Kolacny Brothers; a pair of Pink Floyd songs, given a reggae twist by the Easy Street All-Stars; along with zippy contributions from St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Pulp, Timber Timbre, M83, and Ray LaMontagne.
Perhaps, you think that remaking an acclaimed gem from four decades ago represents a dicey long shot? Don’t bet against this version of “The Gambler.”
“The Gambler” *** ½ R (for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity) 111 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.