By Richard Lobb (Philadelphia)
In The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg plays James Bennett, an assistant professor of literature and sometime novelist who is also the scion of a wealthy California family. He was born with every advantage, but now has nothing to live for. He is driven by one thing – a compulsion for gambling. Only when he finally works up a spark for interest for others does the he begin to see the gambling life as a bad bet.
Bennett could be the poster child for Gamblers Anonymous. He’s willing to put himself, his mother, one of his students, and his new-found girlfriend in jeopardy for the thrill of another turn of the cards.
Bennett’s signature move of betting it all on every hand is not a wise strategy – inevitably, he loses, and gets in deeper and deeper. Having gone through all his own money, he is deep in debt to a Korean-American gambling kingpin (Alvin Ing). Trying to get some working capital, he turns to an African-American loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams), loses it all, and appeals to his mother, played in no-nonsense style by Jessica Lange. He blows that stake, too, and finally turns to Frank, a loan shark played by John Goodman, who impresses upon him the importance of being able to say, “The hell with you,” or words to that effect. (And if I never have to see the mountainous John Goodman with his shirt off again, that will be OK with me.)
Wahlberg plays the gambler as a fatalist, willing to take whatever comes. Luckily for him, the loan sharks seem to respect his nerve and don’t start cutting his fingers off. Along the way, Bennett falls in love with a cute student in his literature class (Brie Larson), who by dint of a part-time job at a casino, is aware of his gambling problem.
Bennett also wins the confidence of another student, a basketball player for his university (which could be Southern Cal or UCLA), whom he is expected to pass despite the fact that he is way more interested in texts on his cellphone than the texts you find in literature. The star player, Lamar Allen (well played by Anthony Kelley), becomes the key to Bennett’s plan to square all of his debts and start a new life.
The film is slow-moving for a thriller. The only suspense is in the basketball game on which Bennett has staked everything. Lamar has to decide whether to shave some points, and it isn’t clear which way he will go. Beyond that, the card play in blackjack, or the 50-50 chance of red or black in roulette, is not enough to sustain more than mild interest.
The film is a remake of a 1974 movie by the same title, starring James Caan. Gambling was far less mainstream forty years ago than it is today, and the denizens of the demimonde probably seemed more exotic and the dangers more intense. In the current movie, the loan sharks’ threats remain mostly just threats, and Bennett’s escape is more clever than daring.
If, on the other hand, the movie is reasonably successful, one could see The Gambler II based on a betting scandal in the NBA, with Wahlberg torn between trying to get his ex-student out of trouble or getting back into the game for really big returns. Throw in some sex, drugs, gunfights, and a couple of car chases, and you have the makings of a blockbuster. Maybe the producers of The Gambler are playing the long game here.