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The Gambler ***

Is it worth $10? Yes

Know this going into “The Gambler”: You will not feel sorry Mark Wahlberg’s character, nor will you like him very much. He’s a suicidal gambling addict who does little to help himself as he willingly makes one bad decision after another. And yet we’re compelled by his tale of defiance and free will, and are eager to see how his story plays out even though we don’t much care if he lives or dies.

Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett is a literature professor, and a bad one at that. He’s a failed, bitter writer who eagerly tells his students they’re either a genius who will find success or they’re nothing, and if they’re nothing they should stop trying. The only person who holds promise in his eyes is his student Amy (Brie Larson), but that could also be because he’s attracted to her.

He’s also attracted to high-stakes blackjack, and on occasion, roulette. So much so that he’s $260,000 in debt to game runner Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), loan shark Neville (Michael K. Williams), and the even more fearsome loan shark Frank (a great John Goodman, once again making everything he does better). Jim has seven days to pay back the money, or else. He comes from a wealthy family, but even his distant mother (Jessica Lange) rebukes his initial request for help. Jim is alone on this, which is fine with him. He figures if he dies no one will give much of a damn, including himself, and he may be right.  

On one hand Jim is the same defiant wiseass Wahlberg always seems to inhabit, less the abnormally buff physique (he shed 61 pounds for the role using a liquid-based diet and strictly cardio workouts). On the other hand Jim is deeply complex and conflicted, and as these layers subtly expose themselves you appreciate Wahlberg’s performance that much more. Addiction to anything can be horrible, but when it’s the byproduct of professional failure and personal unhappiness it’s that much worse.

John Goodman in The Gambler
Surprisingly, Jim is more interesting as a teacher than he is as a gambler. We’ve seen characters go the degenerate gambler route before, but it’s rare to see a professor discourage his students from pursuing their dreams. “Desiring a thing cannot make you have it,” Jim cynically tells them, reflecting his own failures. Most importantly, his jaded (but are his messages actually true?) approach to teaching accentuates his gambling predicament in microcosm – more teaching scenes could have brought the rest of the gambling narrative to life as well.

Director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) allows certain scenes to drag, but as a whole the film unfolds like the slow burn of a lit cigarette. Jim is his own worst enemy, and as his situation goes from bad to worse we start to disregard him as a person and become captivated by the recklessness of it all. The script by William Monahan (“The Departed”) immediately engrosses us into Jim’s psyche but never feels rushed to move plot points along. The ending is a bit of a stretch but fitting for someone with Jim’s intelligence and “winner take all” mentality.

“The Gambler” is an effectively tense drama with solid performances and an appropriately grungy tone. If you feel dirty after seeing it, that’s because you’ve been immersed in sleaze for two hours. And you should take a chance on that sleaze. If nothing else, it’s worth it just to see Wahlberg discuss Shakespeare.

Did you know?
The story is loosely taken from a 1974 James Caan film of the same name with – get this – the exact same running time of 111 minutes!

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