It seems fairly agreed upon that The Gambler is the undisputed dud of the Christmas frame. Opening to weak numbers and even weaker reviews, it seems like this thing is dead on arrival without an audience to claim it. In other words, I had my expectations at the bottom of the barrel for this one, expecting it to be a two hour nap before ‘Into The Woods.’ The question is, did the power of low expectations prevail?
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is something of a stain in the lives of all who know him. He’s a disgruntled literature professor who only has tenure due to a mildly successful book he wrote years before, and a compulsive gambler who constantly finds himself owing money to the wrong people. When he takes a loan from gangster Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams) that he subsequently looses all of, he is given seven days to pay it back, or else he may not see daylight again.
I have to admit, I kind of love this crazy little movie. Under the veneer of a traditional crime drama, The Gambler emerges as a terrific character study of a compulsive, self destructive man hell bent on alienating his very existence, and everyone in it. Director Rupert Wayatt (of the also excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes) immerses the film not in violence and artificial suspense, but in terrifically dense dialogue delivered by a cast of actors who are all at the top of their game.
A great deal of negativity has gone towards Mark Wahlberg for not being able to fill the shoes of James Caan in the 1974 film that this is based on. While I have not seen that film, for my money, he completely sells this role. Shedding sixty pounds and growing hair reminiscent of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, Wahlberg drowns himself in Jim’s cynicism and non-regard for those around him. His character is deeply reprehensible, and that is exactly the point. As an audience, we ourselves feel the frustration that oozes from people like his mother Roberta (played with an icy brilliance by Jessica Lange) who has to constantly give him large sums of money to get him out of trouble, or his students who have to listen to him ramble on about how their hopes and dreams are impossible unless they are pure geniuses. Hell, we even sympathize with the gangsters to a certain extent, because even by their standards, this guy is scum.
There’s a lot of beautiful scene work that stems from this atom bomb of a character. For one, the screenplay by William Monahan (who also penned The Departed) is filled with some of the richest dialogue I’ve heard all year. Some of it is deeply philosophical, almost like poetry written by the angriest poet around about the futile nature of life, and the positions one can get into in order to avoid the pitfalls of it, and other bits of it are just wonderfully snappy and funny. The supporting cast in particular really get to play with these words, most notably Williams, who evokes a sense of intimidation though his calm swagger, and John Goodman playing an even more ruthless gangster who also gets involved with Wahlberg who has a much more minimal tolerance for nonsense.
The only part of the story that feels a little weak is a subplot involving a student played by Brie Larson who finds herself interested in Jim. As usual, Larson gives a competent performance, but her character is so underwritten that we never really attach to her as anything but a piece of the plot. This starts to be a problem towards the end of the film, which really starts to hinge on our attachment to that subplot, and it falls a little flat.
Against all odds, The Gambler manages to emerge as a wickedly dark, unconventional portrayal of addiction. I get the feeling that many don’t like it for it’s slow pace, or a lack of interest in such heavy conversations, and that’s perfectly fine. However, for my money this just might be the most underrated gem of the holiday season, that proves that Mark Wahlberg may very well have a future in roles outside of middle of the road action movies.