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‘The Gambler’ pushes its luck

Mark Wahlberg in a scene from “The Gambler,” a remake of the 1974 film starring James Caan.
Mark Wahlberg in a scene from “The Gambler,” a remake of the 1974 film starring James Caan.Claire Folger

In her review of Karel Reisz's 1974 film "The Gambler" (with a screenplay by James Toback), Pauline Kael quoted a remark that Mel Brooks had once made about another problematic project: "It's the sort of thing that should be tried over and over again — and then abandoned."

Forty years later, in their attempt to remake the original, director Rupert Wyatt ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes") and screenwriter William Monahan ("The Departed") should have heeded that advice.

At least they should have kept one of the few elements that worked in 1974 — the dingy realism. Here the sleazy NYC gambling dens have been replaced by a palazzo overlooking the Pacific like a set from "Casino Royale." Instead of James Caan's tough, Jewish, obsessive-compulsive Alex Freed, they feature Mark Wahlberg as white bread, blueblooded, and bored Jim Bennett.

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As is pointed out by everyone disgusted with his ostentatious self-immolation, Bennett is a man who has had everything — a (now disgraced and disowned) scion of a wealthy family, a tenured literature professor at a chichi university, author of one the best reviewed novels of 2007, and owner of an expensive automobile. Why does he want to turn it all into nothing? And, more importantly, why should anyone care?

Perhaps it's for the thrill of extinction. He plays until he loses everything and then borrows more and loses again. He doesn't just borrow from Peter to pay Paul. He borrows from everybody to pay everybody and then blows all the dough again at the blackjack table. For that he gets two beatings, a slap-down from his starchy mother played by a stiletto-heeled Jessica Lange, and obscene, gnomic musings from a shirtless John Goodman. Now that's paying your debts the hard way.

The audience doesn't get off easy, either. Unless you're a genius like Robert Altman, whose "California Split" (1974) is one of the great portraits of charismatically seedy nihilism, gambling (or any addiction) is a lousy bet as a movie subject because it is repetitious and boring. And if you are saying to yourself — just like life itself! — then you probably took Lit 101 from Bennett, who might be the world's worst teacher. One of the aspects of the original that the new film retains is Bennett's pretentious, bloviating dialogue, full of allusions and half-baked philosophy, signifying self-pity. Somehow, though, Bennett captivates the best and brightest in his class — Lamar (Anthony Kelley), the star of the basketball team, and Amy (Brie Larson), if not the school's best writer, then the prettiest.

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Will they become just more chits for Bennett to blow on a meaningless, hopeless bet? As they say in the world of high-stakes poker, either way it's no big deal. To his credit, Wyatt shoots the film with an elegance that the screenplay lacks, and even injects some narrative frisson by a kind of suspended editing — cutting just before the resolution of a scene, and resuming a moment after the fact and allowing the outcome and aftermath to slowly unravel. Otherwise, it's just like the Kenny Rogers song says: "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." It's time for this "Gambler" to walk away.

Watch the trailer:

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.