Expectations for “The Gambler” may be for something along the lines of “21” — a fast-paced thriller about genius gamblers that easily make fortunes in single nights. Instead, “The Gambler,” a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, is a study of gambling addiction, personal fulfillment and self-destruction.
Quality 16 and Rave 20
In addition to working as literature professor at a fictional university, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg, “The Departed”) leads a double-life as a high-stakes gambler. Possessing an affluent background and high intellect, Bennett’s potential is obvious – except that he can’t walk away from the table when he’s up big. Despite having many advantages and a desirable career, Bennett feels inadequate as a writer, leads an apparently empty personal life and has a tumultuous relationship with his mother. When these problems come to a head, Bennett finds himself in steep debt to three vicious loan sharks – with only seven days to pay off the balance.
Surprisingly, gambling itself takes somewhat of a backseat in the film’s plot. Bennett’s addiction catalyzes the entire story, but little screen-time is allotted for actual gambling. Unlike the 1974 version, the film includes a romance between Bennett and one of his students (Brie Larson, “21 Jump Street”), a prodigious writer whom he openly gushes over in front of a large lecture hall. Needless to say, Bennett’s teaching methods are unorthodox if not downright inappropriate.
Bennett’s profession plays into the plot with another student of his, a university basketball star and non-stop in-class texter, whom Bennett approaches about fixing a game. The film minimally explores this topic, though it raises complex questions about the morality of cheating for the sake of one’s family and the value of sportsmanship.
The film would benefit from greater depth to the nature of Bennett’s relationships with his students, especially his love interest and the basketball star. Apparently without any previous history, Bennett feels comfortable approaching both students in remarkably forward manners. While this can be chalked up to a character trait, more development and build-up to Bennett’s interactions with his students would add to the weight they carry.
The most entertaining character is Frank (John Goodman, “Flight”), one of the loan sharks. Bald and goateed, Frank doesn’t simply resemble a fattened Heisenberg, but possesses the same crucial characteristic of a fierce underground businessman: a fuck-you attitude. Though he causes trouble for the protagonist, Frank also sees Bennett’s potential and pushes him to aspire for freedom — not only from his debts, but also from his own self-destructive tendencies.
Director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and editor Pete Beaudreau (“All is Lost”) shine as bright spots for the film, from the opening car sequence to the quick, tense cuts during gambling scenes. The film also visually makes a nice point about students’ texting habits during class, with subtle inserts during Bennett’s lectures.
“The Gambler” exudes creativity and sufficiently navigates deep themes without attempting to take on too much or make too grand of a statement. Though no aspects of the film are spectacular, every component serves its purpose.