William Monahan has something fierce stuck in his craw. His script for the remake of the 1974 film The Gambler is full of the same seething, smart-alec dialogue heard throughout The Departed; his last big credit, as the poster for this one tells us. The neurosis of male ego is still a big focus for him, though rather than the intriguing character study of Karel Reisz’s Gambler, this one goes on a long and loud tear at the tangential notion of self-exceptionalism, to the point of turning Mark Wahlberg into this multiplex dumping season’s most amusing sock puppet. James Toback wrote the original and has had a good moan himself about not being consulted on the update, but even he doesn’t measure up to the fury in Monahan’s contrived dialogue.
I can’t say that the original is an untouchable classic, or that remaking it is a bad idea. Better that than something a lot of people still talk about, after all. It’s a more watchable than the remake, largely thanks to James Caan’s absurdly cocky performance as Axel Freed, a dapper man with dark double-life as a compulsive gambler with a $44,000 debt. In the muddy and modern Hollywood New Wave style, he saunters from one commitment to another, keeping his mind off that figure for as long as he dares. His feelings of inferiority and invulnerability cause him to skulk in the shadow of his enterprising grandfather, creating a taste for recklessness so volatile that he eventually seeks out harm when it doesn’t come to him. This lends the literary insights he gives to his NYU students an irony that might have felt painfully obvious if not for how unsubtle the new one is by comparison.
How so? It begins answering the question right from the cold open.1 Wahlberg’s character is Jim Bennett, also an English Literature professor(!), and we first see him seated at the deathbed of his father. The old man bitterly begs him to do right by every privilege he’s been given. If the title weren’t enough of a guess at how he’ll fare, the shot at the funeral of him pouting behind sunglasses at his mother (Jessica Lange, compelling in her ten minutes of screentime) should seal that away. This early missive feels almost like a critique of the original, frustratedly yelling at Freed for sniffing out problems to give himself before Bennett does the same. That leads me to think that the thing pissing Monahan off might just be The Gambler itself, with his frustrations worming back into his interpretation in moments of self-commentary. When the effort has been made to relocate the story to the West Coast, and even calloused mobsters (a trio of disparate loan sharks played by John Goodman, Michael K. Williams and Alvin Ing) are making hyper-specific references to stereotypes of the LA film-making community, the doubt of it being Monahan’s own thinly-veiled diatribe becomes easy to shake.
Surely, though, it could also be viewed as a straight story? Films released in the early months of the year are trifles, typically, and this had every right to just be a drab affair with a few obligatory callbacks to the first film. Unfortunately, Wahlberg has been allowed to play the titular character at maximum levels of smarm, without the necessary detail for us to feel in sync with him; something the original did ably. The scenes where he lectures a literature class with evangelistic fervour are mythically unbelievable, like his monologues in I Heart Huckabees taken to a pathetic extreme. He treats his class as a talent search rather than an educational environment, and so he roams the bleachers, stands on tables, talks shit about half the student body and shouts in that amusingly high register reserved only for his most hysterical roles. The bad-boy posturing is present everywhere else too, whether he’s condescending to card dealers in the casino or lamenting the tragic weight of expectations placed on him after having written a best-selling book. Some surreal representations of his emotional state, including a flood ripping through his home in the hills and a childhood flashback or two, don’t do nearly enough to give us the understanding necessary to rationalise that behaviour. The most it all does in the way of audience affection is place itself firmly in the canon of essential Mark Wahlberg performances, for those keeping track after his hilarious effort in The Happening. Everyone else will just want someone to grab a copy of the character’s book and beat him over the head with it.
As for the supporters, Bennett has plenty of students to put in his maledictive crosshairs, including a poor sap credited as Nebbishy Student2 and a bizarrely self-conscious basketball player played by Anthony Kelley. Bennett is most fixated, however, on Amy Phillips, played with totally unwarranted charm by Brie Larson. She’s introduced as a waitress in the gambling circuit, then takes on the thankless task of being the vehicle for his male ego, with one creepy frame in the lecture hall literally seating him behind her as though he were grooming his protégé. She then disappears for the last thirty minutes, re-emerging verbally when Williams’ character threatens to kill her as collateral for Bennett’s debt (who, by the way, fares better with Monahan’s pompous dialogue than anyone) and during the ending scene. It’s so easy to fixate on them and the other supporters because the central plot is so weak, too often losing Bennett’s emotional state of mind amid Monahan’s ceaseless knuckle-cracking.
For all that, it does make the expected updates and callbacks. Where Caan nervously grips a newspaper betting guide, Wahlberg holds aloft a smartphone streaming a basketball match. Where Caan bites his nails listening to a radio broadcast in the bathtub, Wahlberg has a whole TV to fret at. The predecessor’s low-key climax at a basketball match is blown up into a fully-televised stadium event. Nothing is terribly surprising in that regard, however it leaves plenty of more interesting thematic inheritances out to dry, chief of which are the curious racial politics. Again, the original is nothing worth high praise, but it interestingly allows the underclass of black New Yorkers to emerge steadily from the literal background. They start as various kinds of subordinates – cleaners, attendants, classroom dwellers – until they are a diverse set of ordinary individuals reacting to the downward-spiralling white protagonist. Here, black Americans are very much players in the criminal underworld, even being responsible for much of the final reel’s tension. This is in stark contrast to the mafia, formerly chummy character players like Paul Sorvino and Burt Young, and approximated now by a loan shark unit seemingly consisting only of Domenick Lombardozzi and Goodman.3 The latter comes away the worst, driving the cock-slinging childishness home with monotone delivery and hair/costume choices that feel like a cheap grab at Walter White-style gravitas. If any race of people is downtrodden in the story’s proceedings, it’s the Koreans who run the underground casinos Bennett waltzes through, literally beneath a sweatshop in one instance. In this way, it’s maybe a little more varied but too drastically unfocussed to be incisive.
It’s not surprising that this was once due to be a Scorcese/DiCaprio joint. Handing the film from one Hollywood New Waver to another certainly would have carried a poetic air about it, but also the risk of creating bigger expectations by effectively being a spiritual successor to The Departed. I would have been even more curious to see Todd Phillips’ take, which would have marked that infamous director’s first foray into drama. Instead, we have Rupert Wyatt, who previously did a respectable job with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and is seemingly looking to keep that middling reputation intact. Wyatt’s eye is fine enough, and his DOP Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty) does marvelous things with both nighttime and magic-hour scenes, but he is ultimately too beholden to Monahan’s words to let things unfold at an enjoyable pace. The killer titles designed by David Midgen are also harmed this way, because while they look to remind us every so often of Bennett’s approaching deadline for paying his debt, the adolescent swagger of the story deflates its own tension. Less welcome among Wyatt’s tricks is how licensed music playing over certain scenes comes crashing into the diegesis – a song will play over some kind of LA vista and then be cut off suddenly when a character turns their car engine off, as though it were playing on the radio. It’s a cute trick that becomes not cute after the umpteenth go,4 and then gets naff in an ending scene that, while feeling like yet another of Monahan’s obstinate gestures, tries to drum up sincere feeling via an M83 song that will have most thinking of the one ad or trailer they’ve heard it in before (Cloud Atlas‘, in my case).
This is such a strange film. It’s a mess and a half, for sure, but the wild route it takes to wind up there is a sight to behold. It feels like the outcome of a strange set of dares, the onscreen result being Omar Little uttering nonchalantly that the book he’s reading “would make a good indie”. This Gambler had every right to slip on by as an inoffensive, edge-rounded character drama, especially with Oscar contenders gobbling up screens at this time of the year. Instead, it’s a startling work that I can’t honestly recommend, but feel strangely in awe of. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to it again, so I hope at least that Wahlberg gets better roles, Wyatt gets better work and Monahan gets therapy.
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