Have you seen Don McKellar?

Review: The Gambler

The Gambler is something of a failure, but it is a noble failure.

Much of the nobility can be attributed to director Rupert Wyatt, who paints a portrait of a non-touristy Los Angeles, with a picture that jumps right off of the screen. At its best, it feels like a supercharged L.A. Noir, with sound, picture and action working in concert to create a wondrous achievement, but at its worst…

A lot of this failure comes down to the casting decisions, particularly Mark Wahlberg in the lead role of Jim Bennett. While it is easy enough to picture Wahlberg as a gambler, the believability factor buying Wahlberg as English professor poses too much of a risk. Bennett’s billowy hair and shrunken features do little to endear him to the audience, and here seem to be unnecessary accoutrements.

The secondary cast does not fare much better. Brie Larson as cocktail waitress / genius student Amy Phillips has little to do except pout her face and frown. However, we have seen Larson be much better elsewhere. The age difference between the two leads, Larson and Wahlberg, is over eighteen years. Quite frankly, this is a throwback to a much worse time in film, featuring older men redeemed by much younger women.

Michael W. Williams and John Goodman turn up in supporting roles as tough guys, but just seem to be rehashing old parts, and in Goodman’s case, could have been so much more. Richard Schiff is bizarrely cast as a Jewish jeweler, and Jessica Lange just feels too campy in the potential great but ultimately thankless role as Wahlberg’s long suffering mother.

But, oh, what potential this reimagining of 1974’s The Gambler had. The soundtrack is tremendous, the cinematography, by Greig Fraser of Foxcatcher and Zero Dark Thirty, electric. The pacing of the film, especially in the first twenty minutes when Bennett reveals how deep his gambling debt stands, is an incredible standalone sequence. It is handled expertly by Wyatt, simultaneously seems to bet too much, but keeps the audience guessing all the while. The film cools considerably afterwards. The screenplay by writer of The Departed William Monahan has flashes of brilliance, but too often feels as artificial and the glitz and glamour of L.A.

Far too often, The Gambler seems pieced together from earlier, more cohesive films. Perching the film squarely on the slight shoulders of Wahlberg, coupled with a story about down and outs in and around Beverly Hills appears to give it too much of a Boogie Nights feel, even though at this juncture of his career, Wahlberg seems more of a Jack Horner than a Dirk Diggler, a kingmaker rather than a king.

Is this film a gamble? Certainly, and this is why so much of it pays off handsomely. But ultimately, The Gambler should have known when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run, (emphasis on the running).

[star v=3]