Director Rupert Wyatt Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ling, Emory Cohen
The feeling you experience that makes you feel like you’ve wasted your time and money only comes along so often, but when you get that feeling you always know where it’s coming from. This feeling may be different for everyone but you never second guess it. When you’ve watched a bad film you know you’ve watched a bad film.
It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in quite a while, but it inevitably comes around, and for me it did so with The Gambler. This film is like the little brother of all the others that were able to successfully able to explain their underlying themes; it tries really hard to be deep and meaningful but instead what it produces is anything but.
I have no idea what this film was going for. Its characters are unappealing and unconvincing, their actions incomprehensible and unrelatable, making most of it preposterous. It tries hard but the film lacks any tone that hasn’t been seen before, and some of the more “intellectual” moments can leave you completely lost and have you just shaking your head.
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a man with no worth and he express this self-loathing at the card table, equating it to the amount of his winnings, which of course equals zero. He’s been encouraged by his wealthy grandfather Ed (George Kennedy) to prove his worth as simply inheriting his money wouldn’t build character. This instead has the entirely opposite effect on Jim as he has now developed an all-or-nothing outlook on life and goes out of his way to self-destruct without a care in the world for anything or anyone else.
The film is quick to establish the first of the two Jim’s at the tables as he wins big, loses big, then goes back for more despite already being well in debt to gambling establishment owner Mister Lee (Alvin Ling), and later loan shark Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams). There are a lot of facial close-ups and perspective shots that suggest he’s being watched unseen, but they don’t offer much insight and lead us nowhere.
By night he’s a self-deprecating addict, in a suit and sunglasses, but by day he’s deprecating everybody else, as well as himself, as a literature professor in the same suit and spectacles. In a scene I missed the point of he singles out certain students in his class that have shown exceptional ability or talent, and one who doesn’t pay attention in class. He harps on the nature of a gifted genius while making literature references that, if you’re not already familiar with, go over your head. The whole scene killed the flow of the film and felt more of a side-track from the plot we came to see.
Jim meets with another loan shark, Frank (John Goodman), who will only play ball if Jim can admit he’s not a man. Apparently that’s too much self-hatred as he instead turns to his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange), who unwillingly agrees to give him the money to pay off his debts while he sits there looking like a fifteen-year-old whose bad behaviour has made the principal call his mother. Roberta gives him the money knowing he won’t properly uses it then just disappears from the film.
Once it picked up it was quick to quash all momentum. James again sidetracks from his desire to be free by doing the exact opposite and gambling all his mother’s money with his student Amy (Brie Larson) while shots linger on the cards, trying to bluff us as if he might actually win. She can perceive he is in serious trouble with a severe addiction yet does absolutely nothing, seeming to loathe being thrown to the wayside then later jumping his bones. It’s a relationship with some underlying meaning but I don’t think even the film knew what it was.
The film gets back on track with Neville proposing inattentive student and basketball prodigy Lamar (Anthony Kelley) shave points in an upcoming game for a large sum of money, under the threat of murder. What little logic that was in this film is gone by the final act as Jim goes to Frank for a loan large enough to clear his debts then somehow convinces Mister Lee to loan him more money. His end-game plan goes off without a hitch, so he then takes his winnings, enough to cover his debts, and bets it all on black. After that he runs an abnormally long time to Amy’s apartment, flat broke but finally a man free of his vices.
James Bennett has given up on life and sees no hope in the world around him. He’s meant to be a lost soul who believes eternal happiness and self-worth can be measured in money. So he gambles it all away not just because he doesn’t value himself but because he’s a slave to his fixation. Meanwhile he passes this message on to the students in his class, essentially teaching them if they’re not exceptional at something then until they find what their niche is they too are worthless. Supposedly on this self-destructive path with a nihilistic view of the world around him, his nonchalant attitude comes across more like a selfish, unemotional, horrible person.
At no point does he ever seem to actually care about his predicament, so why should we? There’s no reason to sympathise with him since all he does is fuel his compulsion with no thought for anyone but himself. He borrows money from loan sharks with the intention of gambling it away, continually taking money from his distraught mother with no interest in her emotions, ignoring the girl he dragged along while he loses it all, and forcing a young basketball player to shave points to settle his debts. Throughout he suggests he has no real addiction by reiterating he’s not a gambler. Hate to break it to you but you’re not just a gambler, you’re a complete addict.
Mark Walhberg can put on a good show when he’s in his comfort zone, but is completely unconvincing in this role. He’s slumped in a chair with a suit and sunglasses as if he’s playing dress-up, throwing up this monotonous attitude with every line. The whole thing comes across more like an obnoxious, immature teenager who desperately wants everyone to think he’s cool. His performance may be in line with what was envisioned but it’s so lackadaisical that his facial expression doesn’t change throughout the entire film. This superficial persona is on full display, and I was aware the entire time I was watching an actor play a role.
There is only one good reason to go see this film, but oh man is it worth viewing (just don’t pay for a ticket). I don’t know about Brie Larson as her character is too illogical and she had nothing to work with, while Anthony Kelley may have a future if given something more substantial. Michael Kenneth Williams plays his role perfectly well and Jessica Lange is far more talented than he celebrity status suggests.
The one good reason to see this film is for John Goodman as the very scary Frank. From the moment he speaks he’s got my full attention, with the best and only lines worth remembering in the film. He has a cut-throat philosophy on life and he explains it clearly so you know exactly where he’s coming from, exuding menace as this merciless loan shark. When he threatens James you know he’s dead serious and not a man to be trifled with. He may have been on screen for only minutes but it was his performance I had ringing in my head after I’d left the theatre.
The Making Of
Rupert Wyatt’s direction is nothing to write home about, but in a film devoid of any real suspense he does manages to produce some highlights at the card table. His close-ups of faces and the hands themselves do trick you into thinking Jim might win and have you shaking his head when he eventually blows it. Other than that there are very few things of note in this film visually.
The problems begin and end with the script. At times I found myself lost with what was being discussed, unable to find any coherence to the themes screenwriter William Monahan was writing about, particularly the scenes in the classroom. The ideas presented didn’t translate with the rest of the film and felt underdeveloped. Because of this the tone that was meant to be there simply wasn’t and the whole concept of this film was missed.
Structurally it was slow and failed at trying to depict both sides of Jim Bennett, with his day-job feeling more like a distraction to what made me want to see this in the the first place. I also felt there were a couple of plot-holes in logic, one being the money his mother gave him. If he had handed it over like he was supposed to then the film would’ve simply ended; he had to gamble it away because the story needed him to. But then it wouldn’t be in line with the character so it was lose-lose. Furthermore, while his mother is absurdly handing a gambling addict a bag full of money, not one person, friend or family, is noticing just how badly a ride this addict is being taken for. They instead lambaste him and make an obviously sad individual feel even worse.
There were a few shining moments in the soundtrack, the first of which complimented the credits very well, but after a while even the choice of songs had me wondering what they were going for. I’ll end my rant there.
Sometimes you have to wonder why you bother, and other times you wonder why they bothered. The Gambler is frustrating because it’s ambitious and could have delved into compulsive addiction while giving us an in-depth philosophical discussion on dignity and potential through the eyes of an disheartened individual. Instead we got a poorly made film about a man who values money over his own happiness that made little sense. I know there’s a deeper meaning to this film, I know I’m missing it, but I just can’t figure out what they’re really going for here, and if the general audience can’t figure it out then chances are it’s got no hope. They missed the mark by miles.
You win some and you lose some, that’s life. Unfortunately this is a bad hand dealt by Rupert Wyatt and Mark Walhberg that you should not bother betting on.
2 of 10