The remake game is big business in these times. It’s a wily prospect to do one that people will give a shit about; to remake a movie that’s not so obscure that people falsely think that it’s your idea entirely yet popular enough that people still connect with their own feelings when they first saw the original source material. There are many considerations to make. In The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennet. Bennet is a rich guy who lives a dual life. By day, he is an adjunct Literature Professor at the local college. By night, Bennet hits the gambling tables where he throws around huge amounts of money as listlessly as one would throw around used tissue paper. He is a gambler who has seen some better days. His luck sours further and his debt grows exponentially, causing him to borrow money from some questionable characters, Neville (Michael K. Williams) and Frank (John Goodman). Bennet continues to gamble with the hope of getting back the money he has lost and now owes to creditors that have no problem with resorting to extreme measures to get their money back. As he goes deeper into this mess of his own design, his other life slowly begins to deteriorate as well, his gambling problems spilling into his job and family. Can Bennet find a way to settle his debts, keep those close to him safe and still salvage his own life?
The choice to do The Gambler by director Rupert Wyatt seems like a vexing proposition at best. The 1974 source material bears the same-ish central character and title, yet the new reboot eschews the commentary on the issues of gambling addiction, replacing it with glib dialogue and a more mounting tension. Mark Wahlberg is believable as a degenerate rich kid turned bad gambler, but I’m not so sure that he does as convincing a job as a college professor of literature. He’s a little too rock’n’roll for that kind of gig. Wahlberg’s Bennet is centrally located throughout the film, giving it the feeling of “character study”, but the ancillary turns put in by Jessica Lange (playing Bennet’s disaffected yet caring mother), Michael Kenneth Williams (as the ominous Neville) and John Goodmnan (as the cut throat money lender Frank) flesh out the arrangement better, giving a fuller picture of this man’s life.
Still, even with all of this, without the focus on the deeper, personal repercussions of his gambling addiction, The Gambler feels a little more than an action movie where the action is based on cards and roulette as opposed to fighting and car chases. The tension does build, but fails to connect the compulsive behavior to the end consequences, making Wahlberg a very unlikeable character in the process. Which I guess is the point, but without a likable protagonist, instead with a stylized anti-hero, the rest of the movie just flounders around in an unlikable mess where you don’t really care if this spoiled rich intellectual beats the demons in his life.
With some enjoyable performances and knee-jerk tension building,The Gambler feels like it had the potential to become more than it did, but ultimately was just a bad hand that probably should have folded early on in the game. See what I did there?
The Gambler opens nationwide today.