Movie Review: The Gambler (2014)

gambler1As it is with all unsuspecting remakes not many people will really recall the original 1974 The Gambler; a sort of existentialist exercise of carefree bravado in the world of high stakes gambling written in autobiographical context by the great James Toback, directed with unrelenting grittiness by Karel Reisz, and featuring a charismatic performance from James Caan. Through its 70s era cynicism—a decade of films that still inspires and completely alludes most modern day film student filmmakers—Reisz’s film offered an intriguing look into a character’s deep personal flaws as the Sartre and Camus existentialist themes of meaninglessness were experienced rather than blatantly mentioned proving that being is far more convincing than mere statement. Unfortunately that pessimistic essence has been lost in director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of The Gambler as The Departed screenwriter William Monahan’s script overcomplicates the details, adds unnecessary and superficial layers, and overtly spells out its themes through dialogue while still never coming close to exploring its flawed character’s motivations under the surface. The Gambler shares a familiar shell of its predecessor that touts an accurate sense of risk taking audacity and chosen recklessness through an elegant jazzy style and testosterone infused dialogue, but the film remains perpetually on the surface of its subject failing to ignite a true sense of a darkened plunge into excessive human nature while also failing to convince us of its entertainment existence as well. Witnessing downward spiraling characters can be a fascinating even if excruciating watch but they inevitably have to be redeemable or likeable in some guiltily pleasurable fascination as James Caan’s original performance elucidates in a highly intriguing performance of 70s hopelessness and forgivable grit. However, The Gambler’s Mark Wahlberg mixes self-entitled whininess with willful negligence creating a protagonist we don’t care for in action, spirit, or conclusion leaving us with a film that possesses nothing of value if you take away Wyatt’s flashy style, Monahan’s occasionally impressive verbiage, and a slew of actors who bring a charming aura to the film’s criminal undercurrent. Most remakes can’t justify their existence and The Gambler, with its broadly superficial narrative that doesn’t possess any modern societal implications, fits comfortably in the category of unnecessary story revisits.

There’s no mistaking a screenplay from the ferociously caustic and hyper articulate talents of William Monahan since his signature profane one liners and practically Shakespearean sense of drama are consistent elements in whatever he does whether it’s his Internal Affairs remake of The Departed or his adequate directorial debut in London Boulevard. In The Gambler he borrows the structure and themes of James Toback’s original, that is the story of a self-entitled character who is bored of the coddled complacency of his privileged life that the only way he feels something is by putting everything, including his life, on the line. Failed novelist turned college professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is described as a man who started out with no problems and ends up with all of them as he navigates through a seedy gambling underworld of Los Angeles losing money and renegotiating his debts to more and more dangerous entities. Adjusting for inflation from the 70s and adding on additional layers of danger Jim here owes not $40,000 but rather $240,000 to a Korean gangster Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing) to which he borrows $50,000 from a beret-wearing Loan Shark named Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) in a desperate and addictive tendency of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Monahan’s The Gambler becomes a frustrating spiral into futility with Jim as he continuously and purposefully cuts the ropes that might save him from his counting down the clock quicksand doom contemptuously alienating his mother Roberta’s (Jessica Lange) offer of debt elimination and even borrows money from a big-time lender named Frank (John Goodman) promising to pay the ultimate price if his services aren’t paid in full. Even with all of these added on elements with three times the lenders of money, a fractured relationship with the mother instead of a hardship loving one, and an inappropriate relationship with a student (Brie Larson) Monahan’s interpretation still doesn’t really come close to unfolding the motivations or the powerful existentialist being of what Jim represents: an addiction not to gambling but of the thrill of losing everything that means anything to him. It takes more than a sermonized lecture on Camus’ “The Stranger” and a blatant soundtrack of covers including Pink Floyd’s “Money” and Radiohead’s “Creep” to capture the self-proclaimed empty shell of Jim because stating it is far less powerful than actually being it as was the essence of the original.

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To the film’s credit, however, there’s enough stylish technicality and charismatic energy that allows for this focus on an alienating protagonist to possess a modicum of enjoyment mostly due to Rupert Wyatt’s pristine direction. Just as he did with the dark franchise starter of the surprisingly terrific Rise of the Planet of the Apes and his under-appreciated prison drama The Escapist, Wyatt utilizes his rare ability to keep his stories infectiously entertaining even when his handling of important themes or significant messages becomes widely mismanaged. Though The Gambler seems neutered compared to the Reisz original, especially with this version’s lack of rougher edges and sweetened optimistic ending, Wyatt keeps you relatively engaged in its Los Angeles criminal underworld, its sequences of tension filled gambling, and a plethora of characters who are colorfully executed. Greig Fraser’s (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly) atmospheric and darkly moody visuals creates a believably threatening environment that combines perfectly with Pete Beaudreau’s (Margin Call, All is Lost) sharpened editing that works best in the casino sequences where Blackjack has as much edge of your seat intensity as a bomb defusing sequence. Underlining this threatening sense of unease is Jon Brion and Theo Green’s chilling score that could have been utilized far more than was allowed ifmusic supervisor Clint Bennett, and also director Rupert Wyatt, had chosen not to involve as prominently an oddly unpredictable cadre of music choices mainly involving cover versions of Pink Floyd’s “Time” and “Money” as well as an eerie Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ a cappella cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” What’s ironic is that Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler could very much be described as a cover version of the original film and like all covers, though there is often times some admirable creative choices to be recognized, they seldom compare to the creativity, intensity, and purpose of the original material. Though there are moments of kinetic energy, either in the arresting gambling sequences or the presence of character actors who engulf the screen with their charming existence, The Gambler doesn’t keep it going throughout leaving a momentarily enjoyable though ultimately empty experience to have.

Part of that existing enjoyment though stems from the performances on the screen that go well beyond the competent, though flawed, central performance from Mark Wahlberg who finds himself in an odd predicament where he plays against his natural likability. Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett becomes a mixture of Wahlberg’s prominent strengths and debilitating weaknesses as an actor as he convincingly portrays a college professor with intellectual gusto while at the same time his perplexing habit of speaking faster to depict emotional variances becomes drastically annoying and eventually unbelievable. His all or nothing fatalism also becomes a character attribute that suffers in our quest to willingly follow him as his self-entitled and privileged expectations alienate our sense of sympathy for such a whiny, unappreciative, and reckless gambler. Never matching the emotional weight and investment we received with James Caan’s mastery, Wahlberg strains to turn his snarky and self-satisfied self into actual character complexity or a believable pathos leaving us with a well-intentioned performance that misses the mark. Fortunately he has a team of capable actors around him to deliver some substantially entertaining parts, mostly the ideology spouting gangsters that make up the seedy underworld of Los Angeles. Though the daunting presence of John Goodman is always welcome, especially here as the grimacing paternal loan shark Frank, it’s actually Michael Kenneth Williams from Boardwalk Empire fame who finally gets some big screen presence as Neville Baraka who is thoroughly convincing as a quirky loan shark who loves dancing and avocadoes. Unfortunately both Jessica Lange and Brie Larson are stunted by the antiquated use of women in the script, which is a lacking quality in all of Monahan’s written work. However, Lange as the embittered mother takes control of every scene she’s in with powerful intensity just as Larson coyly finds a quiet presence as the student who knows her teacher’s secrets reminiscent of the storyline in Ryan Fleck’s Half-Nelson. The Gambler offers some momentary enjoyment that stems from the script’s mix of vulgar pomposity and Shakespearean eloquence, but those moments seem created in the post-writing effect from the actor’s resilience and control rather than because of the material.

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Before any filmmaker attempts tackling a remake they should first consider the important question of “why should this story be retold now,” especially when it’s as personal of material as James Toback’s The Gambler and its direct relation to the flawed atmosphere of the 70s. Unfortunately it’s quite clear that both screenwriter William Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt failed to bring that consideration into their version of The Gambler which finds familiar narrative melodies in its structure but never finds a thorough reason to why it should be retold. Perhaps it could have been a character allegory for the flawed human nature aspect of addiction towards either greed, or adrenaline, or self-satisfaction but there’s no evidence throughout Wyatt’s remake that suggests this was an aimed for criticism. The only attribute that’s obvious from this remake is that it’s a self-serving chance to capture that sought after cynicism and raw technicality of the fabled and idealized 70s without taking the same original risks that the originals bravely did. If you aren’t going to even attempt any narrative chances or seek to illuminate on a character than there isn’t a point in remaking the material in the first place, which one of the many reasons why The Gambler fails to justify its cinematic existence. Those who enjoy Monahan’s overpraised screenwriting flair or Wyatt’s precise yet empty direction might find some charming moments throughout this remake, but it will inevitably be forgotten unlike Karel Reisz and James Toback’s original that still echoes in thematic resonance even to this day.

Grade: C

This film will be released in limited release Dec. 19th; Wide release Dec. 25th

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