By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — He’s the definitive gambling addict: on good nights, he keeps winning and winning until he loses.
As for bad nights, forget it.
His name is Jim Bennett and he’s the troubled title character in The Gambler, a remake that you don’t have to compare with the same-titled 1974 version, which starred James Caan and was directed by Karel Reisz, to find wanting.
Mark Wahlberg stars in the underworld thriller as Bennett, an associate professor of literature at a college in Southern California, who has one novel under his belt but is currently just going through the motions in front of his students, including Amy Phillips, played by Brie Larson, whom he is clearly drawn to and who is an inappropriate relationship waiting to happen. For one reason or another, he keeps singling her out during class, ostensibly because she’s his most gifted pupil.
Hopelessly addicted to gambling, especially at the high-stakes blackjack table in casinos and underground gambling dens, and defined by his singular self-destructiveness, he comes from a well-off family, whom he figures he can turn to if his downward spiral continues and he ever ends up in even deeper financial trouble than the fix he’s already in.
Well, “ever” has hereby arrived because he has repeatedly borrowed money to pay back debts and then gambled that away as well.
The compulsive and reckless Bennett, with his seeming death wish, seems to feel alive only when he’s risking everything. Which he is because, having robbed Peter to pay Paul, he’s in massive debt to several dangerous underworld types for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So, to get out from under his overwhelming financial debt, he turns to his wealthy, exasperated mother, played by Jessica Lange, and a sinister loan shark played by John Goodman.
Now if only – here we go again — he can just win that one big score.
Obviously, all boundaries have disappeared and so might he.
British director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Escapist) gets our attention in the first act, but then squanders it as we watch a guy who, even acknowledging his sickness, seems like the worst decision maker of all time.
The erratic screenplay by William Monahan, which has moved the action from New York to Los Angeles, is based on the original’s semi-autobiographical script by James Toback (who is credited here as an executive producer). It fails to give us a protagonist worth rooting for – something we can’t really blame Wahlberg for, although we probably do anyway. Let’s just say that the film’s otherwise watchable star doesn’t have the requisite presence to overcome the script’s limitations.
And one of those limitations is an infuriatingly wrongheaded ending that won’t be revealed or discussed here.
So we’ll risk 2 stars out of 4 for The Gambler, a problematic portrait of addiction that, when all is bet and done, goes bust.