The Gambler

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 26, 2014

Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson star in 'The Gambler'
Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson star in 'The Gambler'  (Source:Paramount Pictures)

In the 1974 film "The Gambler," James Caan plays a literature professor $44,000 in debt to his city's mob-connected numbers-men, and going deeper each his day. His mother is a nurse, his grandfather is a magnate -- and he refuses to claim assistance from either of them, because it wouldn't be much of a self-destructive existential quest if he did.

In Rupert Wyatt's 2014 remake of "The Gambler," Mark Wahlberg plays the professor -- now down $240,000. His girlfriend's a student (played by Brie Larson,) rather than an age-appropriate mate, and he's more than willing to accept his family's help. Wahlberg's chasing something less existential in this remake: He just wants to pay off his debt. The movie's bigger, if not deeper. "The Gambler" has been adjusted for inflation.

Wahlberg's professor can't help but get into debt to the wrong type of people, too. The type of people who show up in a movie like this, and deliver eloquent monologues that end with extremely evocative descriptions of the violence to come in later scenes. The drama here -- man owes money, man tries to pay money, man fails, man is forced into combat -- is life-sized. But director Rupert Wyatt, whose last film was "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," directs it like a blockbuster anyway, composing wide-ratio images bathed by popping colors. When Wahlberg is given a week to pay off his debts, Wyatt starts slathering the frame with on-screen text counting it down: First "7 Days," then "6 Days," and so on. When Wahlberg and Larson are debating in the middle of a school hallway, Wyatt stations a choir behind them, humming the alternate version of Radiohead's "Freak" heard in the "Social Network" trailer. Maybe this movie is life-sized, but it's made into opera anyway.

It's helped along that way by screenwriter William Monahan, who brings the same caustic edge to "Gambler" that he did to "The Departed." (Legend has it that this remake was first scripted for Scorsese to direct, with DiCaprio starring.) His script is filled with villains, all of whom allow him to script threatening, Tarantino-esque monologues. Take John Goodman's gangster loan shark, who exclusively hangs out naked in bath houses. (Seriously, that's the only place we see him prior to the climax.) He doesn't talk to Wahlberg's character so much as he lectures him. One of his monologues, for example, is about how "A wise man's life is based around fuck you." Another's topic? "Genetics, cruel fucking mistress." By the time we've become acquanted with his loquacious manner, he's ranting about "microbudget sci-fi films that don't get picked up at Sundance." "The Gambler" doesn't care about gambling, it just wants to hear gamblers talk.

But Monahan's knife-sharp insults can only propel the film forward for so long. Only so many scenes can be written to inject John Goodman into the proceedings. Without the quips, and without the character actors, this is just a potboiler. The roulette wheel no longer feels as symbolically loaded as it did in 1974 -- now it's just just a strong way to create momentary suspense. And the reason our character is chasing his own death no longer feels as undefinable as it did in 1974. Then it was a philosophy. Now it's a plot conceit. This isn't "The Gambler," this is just a Wahlberg-starring studio thriller that happens to take place around a lot of casinos. This is just "Roundahs."


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