Synopsis: Axel Freed is a literature professor with a gambling vice.
Stars: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Jacqueline Brookes, Burt Young, M. Emmett Walsh, James Woods
Director: Karel Reisz
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Movies like 1974’s The Gambler exhaust me. Like, honestly exhaust me. Though clearly a product of its time in direction, production design, costume design, and performance it features the same hopeless characters that still populate movies 40 years later. I call these Lost Cause Characters because it’s clear from the get-go that no amount of mountain moving or lesson learning will move them from their path to ruin.
With his star on the rise after his tough-guy role in The Godfather earned him an Academy Award nomination, James Caan (Misery) plays the role of the lit professor by day / gambling addict by night (and sometimes day) with all the right moves. With his groovy print shirts never having more than three buttons in use, he looks the very image of 70s hunk with a tough edge. Opening on a daytime binge of cards, dice, and lost cash the movie wastes no time in establishing that he’s an experienced gambler but one on the endless hunt for a winning streak.
Even in his early 30s Caan always looked like he was pushing 40 so it’s hard to buy him as a spoiled trust fund kid that manages to weasel out of any sticky situation. His doctor mother (Jacqueline Brookes, playing conflicted to the point of incapacitation) continues to bail him out even when his wealthy grandfather won’t. His relationship with a pretty thing (Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo) isn’t fleshed out enough to give audiences anything to grasp onto and the overall effect is that this character is very much alone in his universe…with his best relationship a shady guy (Paul Sorvino) who would just as soon break his legs as he would sit down for dinner with him.
James Toback’s script is heavy with far too many scenes that feel repetitious but light on the kind of forward momentum that would allow director Karen Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) the opportunity to make something memorable out of this mish-mash. Maybe the whole point was for the audience to be talking back to the screen yelling “Don’t double down!” and if that’s the case then bravo to all involved…but I doubt that an early 70s film would be (or could be) that self-aware.
The film totally loses all focus in the last twenty minutes and never more so than in the final moments. I had to rewind it to see if I missed a key plot point but alas, it’s just another bust for this rough crap table of a film.