Muddled reboot of 1970s gambling drama doesn’t stack up to original
The Gambler is, at best, an interesting mess. More often than not, it’s got several kinds of basic entertainment going for it, even as it staggers under the burden of its more ponderous ambitions.
It’s a remake of a film from the early 1970s, and at times it has the rough, irreverent feel of some of that decade’s more memorable action dramas. Mark Wahlberg has the title role here (it was James Caan in the original), and he’s an apt choice for the part, but this is not the kind of tale that has him waving big guns around, figuratively or literally.
The new version’s screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed) seems hamstrung by the eccentricities that were crucial to the original (screenplay by maverick writer/director James Toback). The title character in both is James Bennett, an English prof who also has an elaborate and extremely reckless addiction to gambling. Toback’s quasi-autobiographical fascination with the existentialist “literature of extremes” leaves its mark on both films.
The new version’s misfortunes reside partly in its failures with the gambling sequences, which are briskly staged and almost completely lacking in any real dramatic interest or credibility. The Wahlberg character’s classroom scenes, by contrast, come to life as a nutty sort of semi-fantastic dark comedy, while also throwing some moderately articulate light on his peculiar sense of personal mission.
A fitfully intriguing set of secondary characters add occasional bits of dimension to the characterization of Bennett as well. His hugely wealthy mother (a blazing Jessica Lange) is a particularly formidable figure in all this, and a grotesquely overweight underworld character played by John Goodman looms especially large among Bennett’s various enablers, antagonists and kindred spirits.
Bennett has an amusing but not particularly credible romance with his star student (Brie Larson, morphing from character study to attractively unhinged fantasy). A basketball star (Anthony Kelley), a collegiate tennis champion (Emory Cohen) and two more antagonist/enablers (Michael Kenneth Williams and Alvin Ing) add color and variety, if not insight, to the central muddle.