University English professor Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is an all or nothing guy. He gave up writing after his critically acclaimed novel failed to light the literary world on fire. “Unless you’re a genius,” he says, “don’t bother.” If you can’t be the best, don’t bother. Why bet some of your money when you can bet it all. That attitude is exactly what gets I him into trouble, setting him on an journey that will cross paths with vicious loan sharks, gambling barons and two students who may or may not be able to help him as he scrambles to pay off a $240,000 debt to some very bad people in just seven days.
“The Gambler” plays like a throwback to the golden age of gritty American drama but blunts the seedy 1970s feel with an ending that pushes past the point of existential dread (VERY MILD SPOILER ALERT) and betrays the movie’s central theme—the dark examination of the life of a man with nothing to live for.
(CAREFUL! ANOTHER VERY MILD SPOILER ALERT!) I won’t say anymore about the film’s final reel, other than to note that if it ended five minutes before it does, with a spinning roulette wheel, the movie would be something you’d be arguing about over a drink in a seedy bar afterwards. As it is, it’s more of a Starbucks frappuccino flick.
Up until that point though, it’s a pretty good study of a man out of control. Unable to curb his appetite for gambling Bennett brings his motto of, “Total victory or death,” into the real world when he has a spectacularly bad night at an illegal gambling club, loses a fortune and puts himself in hock. With no regard for his safety or future he plunges deeper and deeper into the dark side. When the movie sticks to he soft underbelly of the story, it is effective.
The gambling and the money search scenes work, unfortunately the existential English professor routine, which eats up a good chunk of the film’s middle section, doesn’t. Bennett schools his students on the vagaries of life, literature and love but it sounds like barroom bravado sifted through an eloquent filter. The while the words spill out of Wahlberg’s mouth easily, but they sound hollow.
Some of Bennett’s situational angst is airy—his dialogue, while overblown, is often poetic—but much of it is too on the nose—a choir sings Radiohead’s “Creep” during an unpleasant confrontation with his star pupil and sorta-kinda love interest Amy (Brie Larson)—as if director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t trust the audience to understand what’s going on in the scene.
On the seedy side of things, John Goodman as a loan shark who asks Bennett if having all the advantages life could offer up—birth, good looks, moneyed family, education etc—has been such a burden to him, knocks it out of the park. He’s almost like a Shakespearean tough guy in his tone and demeanor and the rich dialogue sounds natural tumbling from his lips. Ditto Michael K. Williams as a violent money lender named Neville, who would like nothing more than to rid himself of “low company.”
“The Gambler” wants to be a philosophical look at life’s big issues, using Bennett’s fall from grace as a backdrop, but in the end delivers Hollywood cynicism.