Over the Christmas holiday, I decided to try my luck at Diamond Jo Casino, just over the border on I-35. Playing only the penny video slots, I went through my $40 bankroll in about 20 minutes, so I totally get how Mark Wahlberg found himself $260,000 in debt in this remake of the 1974 James Caan film, “The Gambler,” based on James Toback’s quasi-autobiographical book.
Depending on how you interpret Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett, a literature professor at a California college, he has either a serious gambling addiction or a death wish. More likely the latter, as his play is almost purposely weak and his life is absent any joy whatsoever. He is estranged from his family and his writing/teaching career is patently unfulfilling, though he does find a modicum of satisfaction discovering a student with potential (Brie Larson) whom he befriends.
Much of the storyline concerns his vying to pay off the owner of an underground casino within the seven days he’s allotted. He gets necessarily creative with sketchy loan sharks — most notably John Goodman, who, if there is a God in heaven, will never again appear shirtless on screen. Of course, every time he gets a few thou (for instance from his wealthy mother, played here by Jessica Lange) he’s back blowing it at the tables, doubling-down until he loses.
Mark Wahlberg turns in a respectable performance, though I would not count this one among my favorites of his, which include films like “Three Kings,” “The Departed,” and “The Other Guys.”
Potential was there for a more engaging story. At times, for example, “The Gambler” has a “Bartleby, the Scrivener” feel, as Bennett frequently shrugs off his debt, telling those he owes that he’s not sure if he’s going to pay them back — practically inviting them to put him out of his misery, yet leaving them only puzzled.
But overall, the film seems rudderless and, despite Wahlberg’s tortured efforts, his privileged character is unlikable to the point that we no longer care what happens to him. Only his debt and whether or how it is repaid sustains our interest.
That’s not enough.
Med City Movie Guy’s rating: 3 Honks
Shut up and reel!
Notwithstanding Mark Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett, Hollywood has generally been kind in its treatment of the gambler. Here are a few of my favorites:
Cincinnati Kid (1965) Against a backdrop of the Great Depression, Steve McQueen (“The Kid”) sets out to take down the best poker player in the world, Lancey Howard, magnificently played by Edward G. Robinson. Old school.
The Gambler (1980) A not-too-bad made-for-TV movie that starred Kenny Rogers and was based on the singer’s popular song of the same name. Unfortunately, they didn’t know when to fold ’em and four weak follow-ups tanked.
21 (2008) Loosely based on the book, “Bringing Down the House,” Kevin Spacey stars as an MIT math professor who leads a few of his best students on weekend gambling junkets to prove that your grade school arithmetic teacher didn’t lie when she told you that math would come in handy someday.
Guys and Dolls (1955) Brando sings, if you can call it that. Otherwise, the performance to watch is Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit. Iconic Damon Runyon characters, all of them.
5-Card Stud (1968) Someone is killing off the players in a late-night poker game that tuned into a lynching. A better-than-average Dean Martin western if you can get past Roddy McDowall’s unexplained accent … his father is played by Denver Pyle! Co-stars man’s man Robert Mitchum.
Rounders (1998) Texas Hold ’em comes of age as Matt Damon helps longtime friend Edward Norton pay off a gambling debt by frequenting underground games around New York City. Didn’t wow at the box office, but remains a cult favorite.