Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg
As a wise man once said, you gotta know when to walk away and know when to run. The protagonist of The Gambler unfortunately knows how to do neither, preferring instead to go all in at all times, even when he's got nothing left to put up. It can't even be said that he skates by on the strength of good will - he engenders nothing but bad will at every step, and the only people who extend him any credit based on that are the ones who are just looking for an excuse to mess him up or worse. The Gambler is the story of a man who has sunk all the way to the bottom, yet finds a way to dig just a little bit deeper down, wearing his recklessness like a badge. As told by director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan, it makes for a perfectly flashy little genre movie, albeit one that becomes just slightly less compelling with each big risk its protagonist makes.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a man who once aspired to write the great American novel only to create what he now considers a "mediocrity" and who has retreated from writing to become a literature professor at a California college where he disparages his students and advises all but one of them not to bother trying to become writers. The one is Amy (Brie Larson), who Jim declares has that special and elusive kind of genius that will allow her to become a successful artist, and whose night job at a casino has given her a front row seat to Jim's secret life. The night that Amy sees Jim wager and then lose big is the same night that he makes an enemy of Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams), a loan shark who fronts him $50k seemingly so that he can have an excuse to break his legs (or worse), and the night that casino's proprietor, Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing) gives him 7 days to pay off the $260k debt he's racked up. At first Jim attempts to rob Peter to pay Paul by going to Frank (John Goodman), another loan shark, to get the money to pay off his debts, but he walks away after Frank challenges his manhood, leaving him with no option but to attempt to get money from his family.
His father long gone, his beloved grandfather recently deceased (and having thought better than to leave anything to Jim, knowing where it would end up), all Jim has left is his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange, in formidable form), who is reluctant to indulge him. She changes her mind, however, once she's contacted by the men he's in debt to and gets a hint of just how deep a hole he's dug for himself and gives him enough to pay off both Mr. Lee and Baraka. Rather than do that, however, he takes off with Amy and inevitably loses everything over the course of a few hours spent in a casino. Running out of time with Mr. Lee, Jim gets picked up by Baraka, beaten up, and given an assignment which will put them closer to being square with each other. Jim will convince a student of his with NBA aspirations to do some point shaving in an upcoming game, and if he doesn't come through Baraka will murder Amy. With the walls closing in on all sides, Jim is desperate and returns to Frank, who loans him $150k but warns him that if the money isn't returned, then Frank will kill him and everyone connected to him. Cash in hand, Jim makes him biggest gamble yet.
Sporting a hallowed out look that rivals Jake Gyllenhaal's transformation for Nightcrawler, Wahlberg's Jim is a shell of a man, a guy whose outward appearance mirrors the psychological space that he's in. Every day he finds a way to shed what he has, leaving it behind and walking away with nothing except the bravado he can't seem to get rid of and the self-loathing that he has wrapped himself in. As a risk taker driven by compulsion and habit, Wahlberg excels in the role, turning in a performance which makes one remember what a dynamic performer he's capable of being when he's not on action movie autopilot. As the brooding intellectual which makes up the other side of the character, however, he falters and isn't really able to sell it when he has to unleash long, impassioned monologues about Shakespeare or Camus' The Stranger. This may not really be Wahlberg's fault, as the film itself treats that aspect of the character almost solely as a plot device (ie an easy means of establishing his connections with both Amy and the basketball player) than as something to be taken seriously, but the result is nevertheless the same: scenes which fall flat with a terrific thud.
Despite that, Wahlberg is still sometimes compelling in the role - at least as compelling as a guy who has entirely given up on himself can be, and it becomes measurably less so every time he demonstrates how much further he has to go before he hits his rock bottom. That rock bottom appears to be putting Amy's life in danger, though it's difficult to understand why that would be so when the relationship between Jim and Amy is one of the story's least interesting or believable elements (if Larson had been granted anything but the most thankless of thankless roles - "the girl" - this might have been different) and leads to the film's forced and wholly unearned happy ending. On the plus side, The Gambler offers some pretty colorful and meaty roles for Goodman, Williams, and Lange in the supporting ranks (Goodman, in particular, seems to be having a blast channeling some late period Marlon Brando weirdness for the sake of weirdness), but these offer minor pleasures in what is overall a disappointing film.