The Gambler: Risk, redemption and repetition

As failures go, The Gambler is at least an interesting and stylish one. This overwritten remake of a 1974 film written by James Toback, directed by Karel Reisz and starring James Caan – which engendered more critical acclaim than boxoffice success – is one of the more verbose films in recent memory. The dialogue, courtesy Oscar-winner William Monahan (The Departed), is arch, sometimes sharp and frequently salty, but there’s simply too much of it.

Mark Wahlberg doubles up as producer and star, playing Jim Bennett, Englishliterature professor by day and dissolute gambler by night. Star pupil Amy Bennett (Brie Larson) knows his dark secret but is attracted to him nonetheless – this despite his being deeply in debt to not one, but three local loan sharks (John Goodman, Michael Kenneth Williams and Alvin Ing).

The Gambler, cloaked in seamy, noir-ish cynicism by cinematographer Greig Fraser, is long on attitude and short on believability. The relationships between Jim and the other characters – Amy, his embittered mother (Jessica Lange), and the trio of toughs whose money he’s gambled away – feel synthetic as opposed to organic. So are the mind-boggling scenes of Jim haranguing his students while lecturing obnoxiously about Shakespeare and Camus.

There are intermittent moments of interest scattered throughout the film – it’s never boring, for one thing – but only rarely does the film find a rhythm. All the actors try hard, although Andre Braugher and George Kennedy appear so fleetingly that they needn’t have bothered. Goodman, looking alarmingly heavy, brings some panache to his role as a Buddha-like baddie, and Williams exudes silky menace as the loan shark who knows precisely how to push Jim’s buttons.

Yet, even as a cautionary study of addiction, The Gambler comes up short. This is one gamble that doesn’t pay off, although not for lack of trying. !