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USA 2014
Directed by
Rupert Wyatt
111 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Gambler, The (2014)

Synopsis: Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a literature professor and a compulsive gambler whose spiraling debt involves him with very bad men but he just doesn’t care. Who does?

The Gambler is a remake of a modestly budgeted 1974 film of the same name starring James Caan, directed by Karel Reisz and scripted by James Toback who loosely adapted the Dostoevsky novella, "The Gambler", investing it with his own insights as a gambling addict.  

This reboot is scripted by crime thriller specialist William Monahan, best known for  Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed and its director, Rupert Wyatt, is best known for Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

As you would expect, this new version is slicked up with high end production values and the numbers are bigger (Bennett owes $244,000 instead of $44,000) but, as you might also expect, all to a lesser effect. Whereas the original film benefited from Toback’s first hand experience and Reisz’s realist sensibilities to bring us a compelling portrait of a man possessed by the monkey on his back, this version is so steeped with visual gimmicry, typological characters, rote plotting (the finale is cringe-worthy in this respect) and pumped up with an electically hip soundtrack as to be bereft of any connection to any world beyond a multiplex screen.

If Caan was an unlikely literature professor, he made the role work. Wahlberg (in what is a very common phenomenon of late he is also a producer of the film) is probably even a less likely scholar  but in Monahan's hands, with his red sports BMW, architect-designed pad and lecturing style that amounts to abusive haranguing of his hapless students, his job is essentially irrelevant (Monahan uses it to reference Sartre's "L'Etranger" in a lame pass at intellectual credibility). In fact every element of the film taken in itself is irrelevant. You could change any of them and it wouldn’t make much difference to the outcome.  

The Gambler is modular film-making at its most obvious  Aside from Bennett’s death-wish gambling antics, there are three demographically typical bad guys, one Asian, one black, one white (Alvin Ing, Michael K. Williams and a pachydermous John Goodman in one of his stand-out appearances) who variously inhabit a dimly-lit underworld and promise a world of pain for Bennett if he doesn’t pay up; there’s a pretty blond student (Brie Larson) who is turned on by his prolix nihilism and flattery of her prose skills; a decrepit-looking Jessica Lange turns up as Bennett’s hard-boiled Mom who ditched his Dad when he was a youngster (the implication seems to be that Bennett’s existentialist disdain for everything including himself, was because of a crappy childhood) while everyone spouts potty-mouthed, rapid-fire pulp dialogue that would make Quentin Tarantino blush for its contrivances and every few minutes some catchy pop song garnishes the familiarly-packaged proceedings, usually to ill-, or no good, effect.

No one’s saying that The Gambler 1974 couldn’t be improved upon, but this is not the film that does it.  Rather than waste your time with it, go back to the source or, even better, check out Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s marvellous turn as a gambling addict in Owning Mahowny.




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