Review: THE GAMBLER

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

This sometimes thrilling and engaging remake of the 1974 movie does have some interesting differences from the original film.  It has some bewildering changes as well.  The 1974 Gambler movie, which stars James Caan, was written by James Toback who based the story on his experiences as a professor and a gambling addict. The movie is a dark and disturbing portrait of a painful addiction and the self-loathing that comes with it.  The new version, which stars Mark Wahlberg, features a lead character who comes across as suicidal, rather than someone addicted to the “juice” of gambling.  There is self-loathing within the character, but at moments Wahlberg’s character also seems self-satisfied with challenging criminal heavies.  The result is a film that makes for an entertaining 111 minutes, but lacks the soul and genuine pain of the original.

Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, an unhappy and cynical literature professor who has dug himself into a major hole with his gambling debts.  Bennett comes from a wealthy family, but a dysfunctional one at that.  Depressed with his life and career, Bennett seems intent on losing bets constantly and getting himself in greater debt with the wrong people.  Whenever people try to help him with his debts, he is quick to throw it all away.

Written by William Monahan (based on Toback’s original screenplay) and directed by Rupert Wyatt, this version of The Gambler is much more slick and less dark and forboding as the original film.  While the original film has a clear message, this movie’s message isn’t all that clear.  In fact, the conclusion of the film (without giving too much away) sends a completely different message.  Also, Bennett’s destination at the end of the film makes no logical sense whatsoever.  The movie plays out as if it had been written by a gambling addict, but a highly delusional one.

Wahlberg delivers a great performance, but his character lacks the charisma of Caan’s Axel Freed.  While watching the original I actually cared for Axel and felt his pain and cringed when he makes his bad choices.  In the new version, I would also cringe, but then actually stopped caring after a while. There are times in the film when Wahlberg’s character is truly hateful.  The movie also stars Jessica Lange as Jim’s mother Roberta, Brie Larson as Amy Phillips, a student and love interest, Michael Kenneth Williams as Neville Baraka, one of Jim’s criminal debtors, and John Goodman as Frank, another criminal debtor who actually seems to want to help Jim.  All offer solid performances, but Goodman really stands out as he delivers some highly entertaining and amusing words of wisdom.  I have to hand it to writer William Monahan for that great scene.  Monahan has written Goodman some excellent material that would make David Mamet applaud.

As for my overall recommendation regarding this film, I do think it is worth watching, but not so much on the big screen.  This is one to rent or view on Netflix next year.  In the meantime, I would highly recommend watching the original 1974 film.  However, it might be best to wait to see that one after the holidays, because it’s not a feel good film whatsoever.

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