The Gambler

Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler

Rupert Wyatt's remake of The Gambler is a slick, polished movie boasting strong production values and a fine cast, but it's missing something essential: a sense of desperation. The 1974 film was a personal, semi-autobiographical tale penned by James Toback, and it captured the inseparable agony and ecstasy of addiction with gripping precision. The 2014 version of The Gambler is just another gambling movie that happens to borrow the original's plot. The original film wanted to be honest; this one just wants to be cool.

The titular gambler is Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter), an English literature professor facing some serious debts. He's nearly $250,000 in the hole, and if he doesn't come up with the money in a week, he'll be facing serious consequences. He feels the best solution to the problem is to keep gambling until his luck turns around. He borrows $50,000 from loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire), and soon he's facing a payment deadline from yet another dangerous person. Jim's wealthy mother (Jessica Lange, Titus) has seen Jim in this position before, and finds herself conflicted about the best way to help her son.

The oddest and most frustrating thing about The Gambler is that Jim Bennett feels like a blank slate. Wahlberg's performance is little more than a flimsy facade of rumpled swagger, and the film attempts to compensate for this by having all of the other characters tell Jim what's he's thinking. They tell him that he's addicted to losing, that he's too smart not to recognize the consequences, that he's only doing what he's doing because there's nothing more thrilling than throwing away your safety net. The problem is that we never see any of that in Wahlberg's performance, who seems to be aiming for the detached cool of Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid rather than the subtle torment of James Caan in The Gambler. Whatever the intention, the performance doesn't work, and it has a domino effect on everything else in the film: its larger themes, its not-tense-enough gambling sequences and its scenes of relationship drama. Wahlberg is unconvincing as a man in the grip of addiction and doubly unconvincing as a professor.

Some of the film's clumsiest scenes feature Jim in the classroom, rambling on and on about the nature of genius. In one overlong early scene, Jim gives a speech endorsing the Great Man theory, suggesting that a select few people are destined for greatness and everyone else should just go become plumbers or electricians or whatever. He doesn't believe that you can become a great writer through hard work or effort – as far as he's concerned, it you're not a great writer, you'll never become one. He claims that only one student in his class is blessed with such greatness: a quiet girl named Amy Phillips (Brie Larson, United States of Tara). Amy is flattered by his words, and intrigued by his hidden demons. Eventually, the two end up sleeping together (continuing the longstanding Hollywood tradition of romantically pairing actors with actresses young enough to be their daughters).

The original film's use of music was one of its strongest elements, melding a brilliant Jerry Fielding score with inspired classical selections. Disappointingly, the soundtrack proves one of this film's most exasperatingly on-the-nose elements, leaning heavily on pop songs which underline obvious themes. During one self-loathing monologue, we hear a university choir performing Radiohead's “Creep.” In another scene, the brilliant Amy – who admitted earlier that she just wants to be treated like a normal person – pops in her headphones and listens to “Common People.” The film does nod to the original soundtrack with its inclusion of the wonderful R&B tune “Sunny,” but it even blows that inclusion by using it as ironic counterpoint to a thunderstorm.

The film's weaknesses are even more frustrating when you realize the most of the supporting actors in the cast are doing knockout work. A bald, shirtless and savage John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis) tears through his scenes with ferocious acidity, and sells screenwriter William Monahan's dialogue with his snarling delivery. Michael Kenneth Williams is similarly excellent, finding some nice notes in the role of a man alternately amused, irritated and bewildered by Jim's reckless tendencies. Jessica Lange has a couple of scenes so emotionally intense that they nearly derail the movie's unflappable vibe. These are old pros in top form, but the movie is called The Gambler. It shouldn't be highlighted by the gambler's associates.

The Gambler

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 111 minutes
elease Year: 2014