Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), the self-destructive protagonist of The Gambler, is a published author and college professor who makes six figures a year. He comes from a wealthy family. He’s healthy, and he’s still young enough to have a career as a writer. But there’s a nagging unhappiness that prevents him from enjoying life. “I’ve been sitting in a pool of infinite possibilities, and I’m sick of it,” he says.
So he gets hooked on gambling, borrowing from one loan shark to pay off another. But after he hits a particularly bad streak, he ends up $260,000 in debt with seven days to pay up. And the people he owes money to (including John Goodman, The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams and Alvin Ing) are businessmen who don’t believe in extensions or late payments. When the week is up, Jim will have to pay them, one way or another.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and written by William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven), The Gambler borrows its structure from James Toback’s 1974 cult classic, which starred James Caan as a man similarly consumed by his vice (for Toback, who has admitted he had a severe gambling problem, the movie was a work of cathartic self-autobiography). But the new version uses addiction as a vehicle to tackle larger themes, eloquently explored by Monahan’s dialogue, which sings in a way uncommon to tough-guy crime-dramas.
The Gambler is about the torturous dissatisfaction some people feel when they’ve managed to do everything right but still don’t feel fulfilled. The movie has the same fatalistic tone as the original, but Wahlberg plays the character as an angrier, more volatile man, figuratively pounding his head against the wall to figure out what’s eating him. His rich mother (an icy Jessica Lange) feels little sympathy for him. His students (including Brie Larson as an unusually bright student) don’t understand when he tells them the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger was saving the last bullet for himself. “You’re the kind of guy who likes to lose,” someone tells Jim, referring not just to the blackjack table but also life itself.
Yet suicide is not an option, since he’s the only male heir in his family. “You jump off a bridge,” Goodman’s scary gangster growls at him, “you do it with the knowledge you’re killing your entire bloodline.”
Shuffling through the movie in rumpled clothes and increasingly bruised face, Wahlberg is enlivened by the opportunity to play a furious man who seems intent on throwing everything away: He’s alive here in a way he rarely is in other pictures. He and the rest of the cast make their way through a seedy, dark Los Angeles rarely seen in films, and there’s a palpable aura of menace that grows as Jim’s situation becomes more dire. Some people won’t understand Jim at all, but anyone who has succumbed to depression will sympathize with this doomed man’s existential angst.
The movie stumbles only in its closing scenes, coming up with an ending that’s too pat and obvious, but the rest of The Gambler is surprisingly effective at letting you know what it feels like when you’re dangling from the edge of the rope every minute of every day and you’re too tired — or unwilling — to pull yourself back up.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brie Larson, Alvin Ing George Kennedy
Director: Rupert Wyatt.
Screenwriter: William Monahan. Based on the film by James Toback.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 111 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, brief nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.