You can bet that Mark Wahlberg wants an Oscar really bad. My guess is that he said to himself that if Matthew McConaughey can win one then why can’t he.
Note: he was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar twice before, once back in 2006 for Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Departed. Wahlberg has now reteamed with William Monahan, the writer of that epic crime story to remake a really compelling nihilist tale originally brought to cinemas 40 years ago.
The Gambler is another kind of crime drama, this time about a guy on the verge of losing everything and seemingly not able to care one jot about any of it. Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a once successful novelist who fast fizzled out of literary prominence, resorting to being a literature professor to a class of mostly uninspired students. Some of them are top collegiate athletes. They are only passing grades because Bennett takes bribes from gangsters who need the athletes to graduate and go pro – to help even out the odds, so to speak.
But what drives him is his self-destructive gambling addiction. He can easily take $10,000, win a few bets and quickly be up to six digits before missing one card and losing everything. He always puts everything onto every bet because he really just doesn’t seem to be affected by anything in his life. He lives for blackjack but cards make awful living companions.
On an epic downslide of bad hands, Bennett gets into major debt with a casino head to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He borrows from a loan shark named Frank (John Goodman) to pay off the first but every time he has cash in his hand, he goes straight to the tables looking to gamble double or nothing. He always ends up with nothing. Even getting bailed out by his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) doesn’t help.
He soon finds himself on the verge of losing everything, including his life. And that’s when he gets in even more trouble by falling for one of his students.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Wahlberg can be a lot of fun to watch as an actor but I think that he still has a long way to go before he can be seriously considered for any kind of major award. This movie is all about the meaning of life but gamblers are not supposed to show any emotions. Perhaps the casting here is too perfect.
That being said, The Gambler proves that it is high time that Jessica Lange acquires her third acting trophy. She has major talent and proves this time and time again with her careful choice of roles and dramatic prowess. She steals every scene from Wahlberg the star because she knows how to command her presence.
Goodman is also a prodigious and diverse talent who seems way overdue for getting any kind of recognition from an awards body. He’s a major character actor who succeeds in every role.
But Wahlberg doesn’t show us anything. He spends most of the time in a state of pure aloofness, and we wonder why we’re still watching. Wouldn’t Robert Downey Jr. or John Cusack have been better here? The answer is a resounding yes, possibly because they would have been more believable as lit profs. Every time Wahlberg mentioned Shakespeare in his class, I expected him to make fart sounds with his armpits.
I liked this movie a lot; it had much going for it. It has a great script and some great actors. Its one great downfall, however, is that the characters have mouths filled with marbles. It doesn’t matter how literary and philosophical the script is if it all sounds hushed, whispered and muffled. I wish that films like this could come with librettos for the audience to read along. I’ve already made plans to revisit The Gambler on DVD so that I can put the subtitles on and finally learn what everybody was saying about the nature of genius, how luck really works, and being and nothingness.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alvin Ing and George Kennedy
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by William Monahan
Rated 14A for coarse language and some violence
Runtime: 111 minutes
Now playing at Cineplex Odeon North Edmonton and Scotiabank Theatre