On the Silver Screen – The Gambler
The Gambler focuses on Literature professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg, as an aside his character in Ted is called John Bennett. I just thought that was worth mentioning) who lives a secret life as a high stakes gambler and has hit a streak of bad luck. His extensive debt causes him to borrow money from his mother and a loan shark to try to make things right as her spirals into a cycle of addiction that could prove fatal.
This film is a remake of the 1974 Karel Reisz film of the same name. I haven’t seen that version myself but as far as I’ve been told it’s great. Given that gambling is as prominent now as it was in 1974 it makes sense to take a film like that and try to modernise it. Not having seen the original I can’t comment on how much this film takes from it so I can only look at it from the perspective of experiencing this version in isolation.
I found the story to be completely all over the place. The narrative did nicely establish Bennett’s dual life and showcased the apparent boredom he has with his career. It makes sense that this guy would seek a greater thrill in some form given how disenchanted he is with the rest of his life.
Bennett is set up to be the classic bored rich guy who seems to have more than he could ever want or need. He comes from money and has a stable career that is well paid. He’s also a really intelligent person who -at least some of the time- has a philosophical outlook on life. He has become cynical after years of teaching students who don’t seem to listen to him and clearly has an addictive personality that won’t let him walk away from gambling.
The story starts to fall apart after establishing Jim as a character. It feels really disjointed in terms of focus. One major pitfall is the inability to settle on which relationship should be the focus of the film. Equal attention is given to his tenuous relationship with his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) as well as an illicit relationship with one of his students who decides to join him in his secret life.
His relationship with Roberta has shades of complexity to it. Jessica Lange does a great job of subtly putting across that she both loathes and loves her son. It’s clear that she finds him to be something of a disappointment given his age, career success and contrasting lack of maturity. She bails him out of his debt out of motherly obligation but makes it clear that he needs to get his act together or get out of her life. The pained expression as she tells him this suggests that she doesn’t really mean it but is trying to take a stand. Scenes like this give the film some much needed character complexity and are great to watch.
Unfortunately Jim and Roberta’s dynamic isn’t covered in the detail it should. I felt that this was the central relationship of the film so it definitely deserved more attention. Jim feeling ashamed of himself through how his mother sees him could have been a major character hook for him and fuelled his desire to gamble in order to give him self worth. Unfortunately this aspect of the film felt really underdeveloped given the potential it had.
Jim’s illicit relationship with his student Amy (Brie Larson) is completely underdeveloped. It basically comes from nowhere and doesn’t go anywhere. I got the impression from the way it was presented that it was something I was supposed to root for but the execution was so clumsy that I couldn’t figure out why. Amy is so hideously underdeveloped that I can’t remember a single thing about her character other than her being attractive and excited by Jim’s hidden life for some reason. There is a complete lack of chemistry between the two actors making their connection feel even less developed.
John Goodman was the highlight of the film and stole every scene he was in. He wasn’t featured much but Goodman gave his character a lot of personality. I liked how he seemed friendly but had a menacing subtext to everything he said suggesting that he is not to be messed with. He and Wahlberg bounced off each other really well so I wish this character had been used more.
Mark Wahlberg does a good job with what little he’s given to work with. Jim Bennett is a really underdeveloped character. Wahlberg portrays the frustration Bennett feels with his life situation really well and I liked how blind he is to just how good he has it. There’s a naivety about the character in a lot of ways despite his clear intelligence. I never got the sense that Bennett learned anything from his experiences or went through any kind of character arc. He just seems to meander through the plot until it ends. In many ways it seems like the story happens around him with very little in the way of payoff for him as a character.
A really uneven experience with a clumsily handled story and inconsistent characterisation.
All of the actors do a good enough job given limited material to work with with particular attention to be given to John Goodman who stole every scene he was in.
The film tries to establish 2 central relationships and ends up underdeveloping both of them. Mark Wahlberg’s Jim Bennet’s illicit relationship with one of his students is especially underdone. It seems to come from nowhere and doesn’t go anywhere by the end of the film.
I thought the initial setup of this film was good and the way Jim is established as a character is really nicely done but from there the narrative becomes disjointed with nothing to hook the audience attention in any meaningful way. Mark Wahlberg’s capable performance isn’t enough to save this.