January 22, 2015 Leave a comment
By day a literature professor and by night a gambling addict, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is in even more debt than his students. Despite owing $260,000 to an underground gambling ringleader and another $50,000 to a loan shark, Jim is determined to keep on betting; first borrowing money from his mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), and, when that’s soon squandered, turning to gangster Frank (John Goodman) for a top-up, the latter of whom threatens to have Jim murdered if he can’t pay up. His two worlds begin to collide when he is spotted at a casino by a promising young student who works there after school, and later when one of his debtors takes an interest in an aspiring basketball player who just happens to take his class.
It says a lot that in a cinematic landscape populated by talking raccoons and robot dinosaurs it is still a stretch to imagine Mark Wahlberg as a university lecturer. And this isn’t even the first time he’s played an academic — who could ever forget his turn as a high-school science teacher in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening? And yet, the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Max Payne himself lecturing an enraptured audience on artistic integrity is too great to make. Jim Bennett just doesn’t make any sense as a character. How does he have a job? Why that job? What even is his job? It certainly doesn’t seem to involve any sort of transfer of knowledge; he doesn’t seem to teach his students anything at all. He just endangers them.
Even then, however, The Gambler struggles to establish sufficient stakes. Beyond the fact that one can write and the other can throw a ball nothing is really done to develop Brie Larson’s Amy or Anthony Kelley’s Lamar into sympathetic or even believable supporting characters. Nobody in The Gambler seems to care much about anything, be it literature or self-preservation, least of all Jim. There is no conflict of any kind — either internal or external — just meaningless money changing hands without any thought for what those sums might in fact represent: be it a bad investment or a dead family member. At no point do you believe that Jim’s life is in danger; instead, it’s just a case of waiting until William Monohan has finished writing the same scenes over and over and finally decided to (literally) write off his protagonist’s debts — Jim Bennett having apparently learned absolutely nothing along the way.
Amazingly, The Gambler isn’t completely without merit. Director Rupert Wyatt does the best he can, and in spite of a largely unremarkable cast and a repetitive script he manages to keep things at least watchable. John Goodman and Emory Cohen are similarly on fine (as in: acceptable) form, with the former stripping half-naked for one of the more bizarre business transactions of the year so far. The only fully clothed person to really make an impression is Jessica Lange, who, applying all the tricks she has learnt over the seasons at FX’s American Horror Story, adds another scene-stealing matriarch to her collection. Sadly, however, Jim’s mother is all but forgotten after only her second appearance, and disappears from the narrative mid-way through the second act, having bailed her son out for the very last time. Tellingly, you spend the rest of the film wondering whatever happened to her.
Self-destructive behaviour is never much fun to watch, but coupled with uninspiring seminars and interminable poker sessions Jim Bennett’s downward spiral is particularly tedious. Wahlberg has been worse, but sadly that’s not saying an awful lot.