The Gambler Movie Review
Mark Wahlberg is an enigma to me. While he has managed to perform admirably in a number of films that I truly love, he has also made very perplexing decisions such as taking over as the face of the Transformers movie franchise, the most recent installment being perhaps the most horrible production ever put to film or any other medium. Even worse is the fact that Wahlberg’s real life persona is such an incredible distraction at this point that his face now often takes me right out of the story on the screen. In this age where the internet has brought the public closer to the stars than ever before, it becomes difficult to see certain actors as anything but themselves. Just as many people now look at Mel Gibson as an anti-Semitic alcoholic lunatic, when I see Wahlberg on the screen it’s hard not to see the man who claimed that he would have stopped 9/11 from happening or the man who wishes to have his criminal record expunged so he can pal around with cops or something. Maybe I see the man who produced Entourage, a show so notoriously exploitative as to have been rumored to have the most despicable casting couch in Hollywood history. My point is, Wahlberg at least in my book always starts out with a strike against him, so I guess maybe you can take this review of The Gambler with a grain of salt.
The Gambler tells the story of Jim Bennett (Wahlberg), quite simply a man with a gambling problem. By day he is a washed up author come English professor and by night he is quite possibly the world’s most inept blackjack junkie. After the death of his grandfather, Bennett slips deeper into the hole of his addiction, racking up debt upon debt to various gloomy characters who seem more than happy to “stake” his poor decision making. Through the course of his misadventures, Bennett falls for a student (Brie Larson) who shows extraordinary promise as a writer and it appears she somehow inspires him to turn things around by, I don’t know, doubling down on his horrible propensity for making awful bets, I guess. See what I did there?
Wahlberg actually nails his role, honestly. The problem is, it’s a terrible role. The main character, and really every character in the movie up to and including Larson’s turn as Bennett’s love interest, is smug and irredeemable. As is too often the case in American cinema, the idea of the antihero is lost. You can dress the man up in slick clothes and bog him down with slick dialogue all day long, but if your audience doesn’t like the man, he clearly fails the hero side of the equation, and I can’t imagine why anyone would like Jim Bennett. And “slick” is really the word of the day here. Slick cars and slick locales. Everything is meant to look oh so cool, but there is no substance here.
There’s so much wasted talent in The Gambler. From John Goodman to Michael Kenneth Williams to the incomparable Jessica Lange, there are nothing but well played caricatures of tough guys and sad guys and crazy moms peppered throughout the movie. All of them together make you feel like what you’re watching must somehow be good and compelling, but in the end when you realize it was all for naught, you’re left hoping that all of these fine actors can find each other in a better film. One with a realistic script and a capable director who understands true pathos and values character motivation over empty commercial veneer.
The Gambler is the type of film that just rambles on and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The ending feels like a test audience edit-the kind you’ve seen a million and one times before. Worst of all, I would have sworn this movie was 45 minutes longer than it turned out to be. It just doesn’t move. It’s a two hour monologue about how most people are just too stupid to “get it,” which ends up playing as an excuse for why it’s so bad. You just haven’t been there. This is the dirty underbelly. Blah, blah, blah. It’s all form over substance. Even the fantastic soundtrack feels so manipulative and contrived that it starts to grate on you after an hour or so. More slickness and zero reward.
I will say this one thing, though. Mark Wahlberg-for all the other things he might be-is an exceptional actor. He remains true to the material and makes it his own. Even if the script is as bad as this, he may be the film’s only saving grace, worth at least a star on his own. If you love Wahlberg, and I know that many do, you’d probably be willing to overlook the shortcomings of this overall production and just enjoy his performance. For what that’s worth, anyway.