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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 26, 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 52
Gambler remake misplays a winning hand
Arts & Entertainment
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Gambler remake misplays a winning hand

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE GAMBLER
Now playing


English professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) has seven days to pay back almost a quarter-million dollars in debts to some pretty unsavory people. He owes both Mister Lee (Alvin Ing), the cagey operator of a high society underground gambling ring, and Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a cold-blooded loan shark looking to use Bennett's collegiate access for his own unscrupulous designs, and as of right now he can't pay back either of them. His wealthy mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) is reticent to dig her son out of another financial hole, letting him know in no uncertain terms that if she does it will be for the very last time.

Forced into a corner of his own making, Bennett turns to Frank (John Goodman), another loan shark with a well-earned reputation for collecting on every debt one way or another. This is the last man the professor wants to owe money to, a fact not lost on either of them, but with very few options and nowhere else to turn he takes the cash nonetheless. In a last ditch effort to extricate himself from this mess and keep those he cares most about - not just his mother but also whip-smart student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) and collegiate basketball superstar Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) - safe, Bennett hatches a crazy plan to play Frank, Neville and Mister Lee one against the other, gambling that he's smarter than any of them know and that Lady Luck owes him one after so many losing hands.

A remake of the 1974 James Caan drama of the same name directed by Karel Reisz and written by James Toback, director Rupert Wyatt's The Gambler is a pretty significant change of pace considering his last effort was the mega-budget franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Working from a nervously energetic script from Oscar-winner William Monahan (The Departed), this remake begins with subtly invigorating ferocity, deftly putting Bennett under the microscope as it analyzes his addictions and instabilities while he digs himself a financial grave. It's a glorious start, the first third a bewildering flurry of emotion, chutzpah and self-destruction that adroitly sets the stage for the subsequent traumas to come.

Unfortunately, Wyatt and Monahan can't maintain their focus, presenting things in too transient a fashion, never allowing any of the core characters to obtain a complex dimensionality that would make Bennett's seven-day journey affecting. The emotions driving things are too spot-on, all of them staying right on the surface, the movie never trying to conceal its hand, instead laying its cards openly on the table for all to see. It doesn't push itself, doesn't attempt to go any deeper than necessary, and as such the intensity and visceral despair required to give the drama staying power and a bludgeoning punch is oddly absent for much of the climactic third.

Yet the film is seldom if ever boring, Wahlberg's performance alone so lived-in, so nakedly raw, it in and of itself is almost worth the price of a matinee ticket all on its own. Gaunt, withdrawn and sallow, the actor has given himself entirely over to Bennett, achieving a level of physical transformation that's shocking. He also infuses the character with the right amount of cagey, self-aware confidence, and even as he falls deeper and deeper into his addiction, his attitude remains more one of defiance than it does of despair, the two emotions rubbing one off of the other fueling a survival instinct that's carnally craven in its savage tenor.

Wyatt's remake also looks and sounds terrific, the director's use of music coupled with its anarchic audio design and visual attention to detail giving things a compulsively bellicose attitude that fits the narrative perfectly. He's also given Goodman a wonderful supporting role, allowing the actor to sink in and take over his scenes with a monstrous menace that oozes throughout the theater with timorous pitilessness. Every time he shows up the movie is given a jolt of unbridled electricity that's invigorating, part of me almost curious what a standalone story following Frank for a day might end up looking like.

The problem is that the filmmakers never earn all that it is they are aiming for. Bennett and Roberta's familial strife is almost too nondescript for its own good, and it's a testament to Lange's virtuosity that she's able to wring as much emotion from her few scenes as she does. Worse, his relationship with Amy is unbelievable right from the onset, the gifted Larson stuck playing a thin, one-dimensional character far beneath her talents.

More than that, though, it is the oddly warm, sunnily optimistic climax that really doesn't work, the final scenes feeling much too out of place considering all the self-inflected emotional and physical carnage that's preceded them. Much like its protagonist, The Gambler doesn't know when to quit, a winning hand transforming into one that should have been laid down long before the cards were even dealt.

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