Photo by Claire Folger © 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The fundamental failing of the 2014 remake of the 1974 film The Gambler is not the (mis)casting of Mark Wahlberg as an English literature professor. It's not even the oddly disengaged performance of Brie Larson as Amy, the student girlfriend.
The film's major failing is its tedious pace, which, despite many opportunities for gripping drama, lumbers along from scene to poorly connected scene.
Unlike other Wahlberg films (looking at you, Transformers: Age of Extinction), you notice as huge plot holes appear and linger unresolved at the end. The overall experience is, much like the lead character's life, highly unsatisfying, despite starting out with such promise and opportunity.
'You got a BMW M1. How are you not happy?'
The Gambler opens with Wahlberg's Jim Bennett wearing sunglasses in church at a funeral. The funeral is for his rich grandfather who, despite being a curmudgeonly old fellow (aren't all old rich dudes that way), is the only person whose opinion Bennett cares about.
Cue dramatic music. Bennett's life is about to spiral out of control. Segue to Bennett watching basketball in the bath. He has a bet on the game.
Bennett is an a**hole to everyone in his life, including his students, who are as disengaged as he is. In class he zeroes in on the brilliant Amy, played by Brie Larson, and questions why she would even bother 'taking his class'. It's the beginning of a rather odd relationship that remains unconvincing and poorly resolved.
Next time we see Bennett he's gambling and winning. It's high stakes and he wins big on his first hand. Then he loses big. Chasing his losses, he doubles his stake to try to win it all back and loses the lot.
He's now in a hole for $240,000 to underground casino owner Mr Lee (Alvin Ing), who gives him a week to make good or pay the ultimate price. He immediately digs himself in further by borrowing money from a loan shark, which he again squanders before turning to another dodgy lender, this time an in-form John Goodman. Goodman's Frank sums up Bennett by pondering why he wants to 'dance with the devil for some unknown reason'.
'You're the perfect example of someone who started out with no problems and then ended up with all of them.'
If the movie has one saving grace, it's the disturbingly accurate portrayal of someone in the grip of a gambling obsession. Bennett is single-minded in his self-destructive behaviour. More than once he's accused of being suicidal.
The film shows that gambling harm has no regard for wealth or intellect. Despite being born into a life of privilege and being a professor of English literature, Bennett's compulsion to gamble consumes his life.
Everyone around him suffers. His students. His lover. His mother, played by the stoic Jessica Lange, who rescues him one last time (or so she says) by withdrawing a quarter of a million from the bank to cover his debts. While she says it's the last of it, we can't help but wonder when she goes on to deny he has a 'real' problem, telling him she doesn't believe he has a disease.
The implication running through the movie is that Bennett is choosing this life and he alone is responsible for his problems. He's constantly referred to as a flawed character, a 'scumbag' with a death wish.
'Human weakness is not something I discourage. How could I, I run a gambling establishment.'
There is only one point where the accountability of the industry and the loan sharks, who circle at any sign of blood in the water, is recognised. Mr Lee's acknowledgement that he's dealing in misery is brief but telling.
As the deadline approaches, Bennett crosses the line when he asks star basketball player Lamar to help him win back the money to pay off his debts. After earlier displaying a strong sense of ethics by saying he would not bet on his own student, this is surely the point of no return for Bennett.
Lamar comes good (this is an American movie after all) and Bennett wins the money to stake himself in yet another game that could literally save his life. Of course he wins in a bold doublecross of the Korean casino boss and Frank the lender, and we're supposed to cheer his lucky escape but this viewer was unmoved.
To hammer the point home, Bennett runs from the dark of the casino into the daylight, without a cent but alive and debt-free. The symbolism is supposed to be uplifting and positive, but one can't help but wonder if the lure of the tables will pull him back in.
Bennett's denial throughout the film, declaring 'I'm not a gambler' no less than three times, leaves the viewer thinking it won't be long before he's back risking it all, and at some point there won't be a Lamar or Mum's bank account to save his sorry hide.