(SPOILERS) Mark Wahlberg in serious lead actor mode ought always to be a warning sign. Put him in a comedy, more than likely, you’re reasonably sorted. Give him a supporting role in a drama, and you’re similarly quids-in. Here he’s starring in a remake of the 1974 James Caan picture, the title of which should be enough of a clue. But, if you need a bit more, this isn’t a happy-go-lucky caper like The Sting. The Gambler is a very much a ‘70s anti-hero part, the addict who destroys everything around him but still you’re expected to stick by him. Because it’s the ‘70s.
Except it isn’t. Not in Rupert Wyatt’s picture. And the attempt to update the tale leaves it looking rather silly and nonsensical, stranded somewhere between a desire for gritty consequences and a ridiculous fantasy of the (disenfranchised) heir to a fortune who also happens to be a (one-time) great novelist, an English Literature professor and a hopelessly addicted gambler. Oh, and a chap imbued with rampant charisma, such that he lectures his students in a nihilistic spin on Dead Poets Society about how none of them will ever amount to anything, how “desiring a thing cannot make you have it”, etc. He’s the personification of the immature student fantasy of the disillusioned could’ve-been, but who still has that one last shot at finding his humanity.
So The Gambler’s corny enough, and dumb enough in the first place, quite before Wahlberg is thrown into the mix. This is his most unlikely role since he played a science teacher in The Happening, which is to say he isn’t remotely convincing as an intellectual, even if you can buy him as a cocky, morally inebriated loser, willing to put everything on the table for his fix. It’s difficult enough finding an in with these oft-glamourised (in a “We’re telling you they aren’t heroic but really we think they are” sense) tales anyway, but The Gambler is particularly suspect in that it suggests an inescapable downward spiral before providing the hero with unearned salvation (it scarcely needs saying that the Caan picture avoided this).
Of which, it bears emphasising that this picture is so creatively bankrupt it resorts to illuminating our “hero’s” dash for freedom against the dawn sky with the sound of M83. I love M83, but employing them currently is the cheapest, most redundant means to manipulate a sequence for emotional uplift. I don’t know what Rupert Wyatt was doing making this. Perhaps he’s intent on pissing away the good notices Rise of the Planet of the Apes brought him. Or perhaps not: he did, after all, see the good sense of extricating himself from Fox’s Gambit movie (maybe he signed on thinking it was the remake of the Michael Caine movie, understandably having expunged all memory of the Colin Firth remake from his mind).
Anyway, there are some very good performers filling out the supporting roles, alas to no avail. Jessica Lange plays Mark’s long-suffering mum (dumb enough not to demand to pay off his debts herself, but then we wouldn’t get the big moneymaking finale where Marky Mark justifies the gambler’s fantasy, would we?) Brie Larson is typically great in a thankless student-besotted-with-her-professor part, and Michael Kenneth Williams brings an easy humour to his loan shark. Stealing the show is John Goodman’s shaven-headed super-bastard shark, the one who will kill your entire family if you don’t pay up. His every line is an over-written cliché, but because it’s Goodman he makes you believe it.
The Gambler didn’t cost much, which is just as well as it didn’t make much. William Monahan was no doubt grateful to pay off some bills after his London Boulevard catastrophe, and no one else will exactly suffer from it being an ill-advised broke-backed vanity piece for its star. Wahlberg never seems to be a film away from a hit at the moment. Even if Ted 2 underwhelmed, he’s always got the next comedy on the way (with Will Ferrell) or hitching himself to yet another jingoist crapshoot with Peter Berg. This was originally planned for Scorsese and DiCaprio, and I don’t think even they could have made much of it (it would have probably been on the Shutter’s Island end of the scale). With Wahlberg and Wyatt, while this isn’t an outright offensive stinker, it is utterly, utterly vacant.