Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a good movie. I know that’s kind of a weak statement but I’m not sure how else to sum it up. It’s a remake of the 1974 James Caan film of the same name but this version isn’t a carbon copy. While the basic floor plan remains, certain important events are rearranged, altered—not always for the better, by the way—and some are even removed all together. Having seen the original fairly recently, there was just enough change in Wyatt’s version to keep me on my toes. Yet, as entertaining as the movie can be “The Gambler” still suffers from some glaring issues that keep it from achieving greatness.
The picture revolves around Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg, nicely fitting into Caan’s shoes), a literature professor with a costly extracurricular activity. By day he teaches English 101 to a class full of disinterested students—we’ve all been there. Even as an English major myself I found English 101 to be boring—and by night he’s gambling. An activity that leaves him with a massive debt. Bennett is a peculiar English professor in that he doesn’t seem to care all that much about his profession. He’s intelligent and seems to know his stuff but his life outside the classroom doesn’t feel like one of an English teacher. Instead of mingling with other literature professors or scholarly people talking Chaucer or Joyce he’s most at home in dangerous places with low life criminals. He loves the thrill of gambling, putting everything on the line and potentially winning it all. A sensation he probably doesn’t get from teaching.
On top of that his teaching style is aggressive and blunt to say the least—during one lecture period he very frankly announces that most of the students won’t be good writers, even the students that want to be in English 101. His confidence level is extremely high, an admirable quality no doubt. He never comes off as a pathetic addict. When his shady debt collectors come knocking he doesn’t beg them for another week. Instead he wears an apathetic guise—not caring whether he ends up in a ditch somewhere--to buy more time. A gamble in and of itself that sometimes pays off. Bennett is the most compelling part of “The Gambler” because he’s both likable and unlikable at the same time. An educated man given all the opportunities growing up—his family is loaded—with a stupid, stupid problem. This tension proves to be the driving force in the entire movie: on the one hand you hate to see Bennett in these tight situations but on the other he brings them on himself.
With the rest of the movie Wyatt finds a middle ground between an ultra depressing addiction movie—in the vein of something like Steve McQueen’s “Shame”—and a pulpy, semi comedic crime drama. At times it can be quite somber and uncomfortable like most addiction dramas but the comedic undertones also make it more enjoyable and easier to consume. This middle ground isn’t always so smooth, however. Sometimes the comedic scenes can feel too cartoony, for example when Bennett eggs on one of his debt collector’s associates and gets punched repeatedly for it. These scenes simply feel too out of place, especially when juxtaposed with very serious ones. Bennett sitting in his bathtub thinking about his massive debt, looking sad. In addition, the debt collectors themselves—played by John Goodman and Michael K Williams—come right out of a B gangster picture, Goodman’s character in particular. While he’s definitely fun to watch in the typical loudmouth John Goodman way he doesn’t get very many scenes and therefore comes off as no more than a caricature.
There are other issues concerning supporting characters, most notably the romantic subplot between Bennett and a student named Amy (Brie Larson). Put simply, it just isn’t developed enough. We don’t really understand what Amy finds so appealing about Bennett and Wyatt only devotes a few scenes to the relationship, not allowing for any kind of substantial connection to form. This wouldn’t be that great of an issue—after all the focus is on Bennett and his problem—except that Wyatt forces this undercooked subplot into the final frames of the movie. Making for a puzzling and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.
From a technical standpoint “The Gambler” is also a mixed bag. There are odd stylistic flourishes—the use of jump cuts while Amy is walking to campus, a lengthy sequence towards the end involving Bennett running to meet someone, a five minute long college basketball scene, various moments of slow motion—that come off as unnecessary indulgence; not doing anything to advance the picture. At the same time, the soothing ambient score by Jon Brion and Theo Green is outstanding, providing perfect background sound for the more uneasy and melancholy moments.
All in all, “The Gambler” is an entertaining, though somewhat forgettable affair. A great central performance surrounded by a uneven movie.