REVIEW: The Gambler

23 12 2014

In Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler,” Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, an English professor by day and a high-stakes better by night.  When he gets himself into a tight situation with creditors coming to collect a big debt, Bennett resists help from his put-out mother (Jessica Lange) and a prodigious student (Brie Larson).  Instead, he responds by digging his hole deeper to vault himself out on an even larger scale.

Wahlberg plays the character with a vulnerability and self-deprecation when spitting out screenwriter William Monaghan’s rapid-fire dialogue.  Yet when his lips are still, Wahlberg imbues Bennett with a staggeringly ambivalent sense of hubris.  Viewing a week in his quickly disintegrating life is a strange experience because so much about him seems contradictory.

Bennett is best understood by not trying to understand him at all, simply watching and observing rather than identifying or analyzing.  Monaghan, working from a forty-year-old New Hollywood flick of the same name, harkens back to the era of the characterization’s conception.  Bennett exemplifies the ’70s-style impenetrable antihero, but Monaghan cleverly reassembles him for relevance in the time of TV’s current “difficult men” like Don Draper and Walter White.

Bennett cannot be explained by nor reduced to a few biographical details. Nothing indicates some massive familial implosion. His condition does not appear to have any psychological roots at all, in fact. Bennett has simply shed all illusions about life and convinced himself that the only game worth playing is one where the stakes are all or nothing.

Mark Wahlberg The Gambler

Once this knowledge and intuition gets a chance to settle, “The Gambler” becomes quite an entertaining film.  Wyatt allows it all the high-wire thrills of a film like “21,” except Bennett is armed with existentialism rather than knowledge of mathematical probability and card counting.  He spits in the faces of some powerful players, including Michael Kenneth Williams’ aggressive Neville Baraka and John Goodman’s lumbering, hefty loan shark Frank (which the actor has likened to a “butter sculpture“).

Though he’s on the hook for hundreds of thousands, Bennett never relents with his self-confident smugness that could make Robert Downey, Jr. blush.  (Nor does he ever stop wearing sunglasses indoors as if he is trying to wrestle that crown away from Jack Nicholson.)  Sometimes his actions and their repercussions are a little hazy, partially due to his erratic nature but also somewhat because of some iffy narrative clarity from Monaghan.

Overall, “The Gambler” still manages to be effective in encouraging its viewers to adopt a different mode of comprehension.  Any film that can resist simple, facile ways of consumption in a moviegoing climate that favors homogenization and reproducibility is a victory worth commending.  B2halfstars

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23 01 2015

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