Movie Review ~ The Gambler (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Both an English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Jim Bennett bets it all when he borrows from a gangster and offers his own life as collateral.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: If you must remake a movie, you should at least aim higher than the film you’re giving a new shine to.  That’s sage words of advice for any filmmaker but a message those behind The Gambler didn’t pay much attention to.  The original 1974 film was no classic but it’s leagues better than this sluggish rethinking that never antes up to the table though it has several aces up its sleeve.

Considering the script from Oscar winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) was based on James Toback’s original I was surprised how very different the two movies are.  In fact, it may be wrong to call the movie a remake at all because although the structure follows the original in a very rough sense, many other changes have been made that don’t do any favors for anyone involved.

I’m a person that rarely goes to a casino and if I do, if I find myself even $10 up I’m ready to cash out and head home.  So it’s particularly frustrating me to watch films like The Gambler where characters can’t resist making that one last bet that obliterates their winnings.  It’s a scenario that happens over and over again here and it makes for exhausting viewing.

Mark Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Extinction) is a floppy haired spoiled rich kid cum failed writer that teaches at a local college and has a nasty gambling habit.  Losing a nice chunk of change and borrowing from a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams, RoboCop) to cover his losses, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught in the middle of the people he owes and having to figure out how to pay them back while keeping all of his appendages intact.

In Monahan’s script, all the women in Wahlberg’s life are either ice queens (Jessica Lange, Cape Fear, drastically underused and over Botox-ed as his chilly mother), moon-faced admirers (Brie Larson, The Spectacular Now), or strippers/prostitutes with little redeeming value.  At least in Toback’s original script the women represented some quality he was lacking.  Here they have virtually no purpose but to be roadblocks or doormats.

Especially troubling is the storyline that puts a star pupil (Larson) in position to be a love interest for Wahlberg.  Possessing no chemistry, the actors go through the embarrassing motions of courtship that culminates in an out of nowhere kiss that had one audience member at my screening exclaim “Are you KIDDING me?”

Between long soliloquies in the classroom setting that show how well Wahlberg can recite dialogue that makes him appear as if he could be a lit scholar and too many visits with a just this side of deadly loan shark (John Goodman, Argo) the film is less than two hours but feels 40 minutes longer than that.  Capping off with an eye-roll of a coda, this Gambler doesn’t even deserve a place at your cinematic table.  Skip it.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Gambler (1974)

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The Facts:

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

Rated: R

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.