The Gambler is one of those films based around a character study. Unfortunately the character is an asshole and this doesn’t really change at any point in the film. Even at the end of the movie, the moment of his character’s arc, he’s doing something that would still be considered kind of an asshole thing to do…
Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor and compulsive gambler. He lectures by day although it’s more like creative belittlement and blatant favoritism towards his students. When he’s not lecturing he’s gambling. Although, that doesn’t seem accurate either as his gambling seems to be more about just throwing away his winnings and then acting like the world is a terrible, desolate place because of it. On top of his losing his winnings, he’s also borrowing money from people he shouldn’t be borrowing money from which comes to a bit of a head when he owes each quite a sum after borrowing from one to settle debt from another. Oh, and he’s really gloomy about it, and so is the film.
The thing with a character study like this is that unless there’s some sort of epiphany (which the film sort of has but the moment doesn’t come off very effectively), the film becomes just a drawn out exercise circling around whatever drama surrounds the main character. Sad to say, that’s the case here. There’s just no redeeming qualities to the main character. He’s an asshole to everyone: the person who’s supposedly his love interest, his mother (who bails him out financially only to have the money gambled away), his students, the loan sharks, everyone. Even at the end during the moment of epiphany, he’s still an asshole, doing asshole things. I ended up not liking his character at all and had absolutely no respect or sympathy for him since all of his problems are based on his own stupid decisions which he takes no responsibility for choosing to blame fate and humanity instead.
Wahlberg’s performance is ok. There a few times he’s engaging to watch but he’s mostly one-note here – stuck in asshole mode which makes the film very one-note as well and just kind of depressing. Jessica Lange plays Bennett’s mother and she’s a jerk too although at least she’s a jerk that shows love and support of her son. Neither actor really expands far beyond the initial base of the character although I think this is more due to the writing and directing. John Goodman, Brie Larson, Omar Leyva, George Kennedy, and Michael Kenneth Williams round out the cast and are all competent.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt, there’s a slick visual style to the film and some interesting character traits (Wahlberg’s character uses an umbrella to hold off the sun, because that just how dark and tortured that he is). The visuals are interesting a times and well designed but don’t make up for the lack of dimension and the monotone feel of the film.
I wouldn’t recommend paying money to see this one (not even for a rental). You might want to check it out once it hits cable or Netflix but just don’t expect to walk away from it with any kind of upbeat sensibility, it’s pretty much a downer from start to finish.
reviewed by Sean McKnight