Mark Wahlberg continues his questionable vein of form, taking the titular role in British director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of 1974 film ‘The Gambler’. Mimicking the great James Caan who had the lead in the original written by James Toback, he plays literature professor by day, compulsive risk-taker by night Jim Bennett. Set in a greasy depiction of Downtown Los Angeles, Bennett recklessly lands himself in debt with both the proprietor of an underground casino and menacing mob boss Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams). Turning to wily loan shark Frank (John Goodman) and befriending impressionable student Amy (Brie Larson), he aims to dig a way out of the mess he got himself into, but like a petulant child refuses to take responsibility for his actions. With his fate likely to be decided on the turning of a card, can he turn his luck around and get everything he has ever wanted or is he destined to lose it all?
With an intriguing premise and an impressive cast, the foundations were laid for an exciting watch. In the gambling den scenes with the background clinking of the chips and whirling of the roulette wheel, a suspenseful buzz is achieved. Unfortunately, the buzz soon wears off and the disappointingly William Monahan’s shoddy script allows the protagonist to continually spout off quasi-intellectual speeches about his philosophies on life and how unfair the world is. Somehow, his garbling brings about an unfeasible romantic subplot that has about as much sexual tension as a trip to the chiropodist. The incoherent narrative isn’t helped by the distracting shuffle-all soundtrack, tacky visual effects and a series of odd camera tricks and weird angles that look as though they’ve been compiled for a cinematographer’s show reel.
Mark Wahlberg is horribly miscast as Bennett, and you never quite understand or see any reasoning behind anything that he does, meaning that his character arc is virtually a straight line. The veteran actors supporting do offer some respite from the intolerable central performance, in particular the aforementioned John Goodman and also Jessica Lange, who plays Bennett’s wealthy mother who appears to have bailed him out one too many times in the past. Brie Larson, who is usually so good if you take her appearances in Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now as examples of her talent, is vacant in a role that serves purely as a bad storytelling device.
The main problem behind ‘The Gambler’ is that we, as an audience, should always be rooting for Jim Bennett’s gamble to pay off eventually despite his flaws but by the final act, I really didn’t care. The idea of the self-loathing addict has so much potential and there are countless possibilities to exploring the themes and dissecting the psychological torment of someone who never really feels like a winner, choosing to chase the unreachable dream. For me, Wyatt’s glossy, haphazard execution is ultimately a wasted opportunity that should have been odds-on for success, and no matter how much Bennett appeared to hate himself, I think I hated him just that little bit more.