The Gambler is pretty much a misfire of concept - even if it makes the admirable move of going for a different thematic angle on the original material.
In The Gambler we meet Jim Bennet (Mark Wahlberg), the son of a wealthy family and a highly intelligent literature professor/writer. When Jim finds out that his inheritance will not be at all what he expected, he embarks on a dangerous venture in his secret life as a high-stakes gambler.
Before too long at his dangerous game, Jim finds that he is in debt to several major gangsters. Worse than that, the people close to him (his mother, a potential lover, a prominent student athlete) are soon targeted as "collateral" for Jim's debts. But for Jim, being behind the eight ball is not a hell, but rather a state of grace. Jim not only accepts but desires his fate; for him, existence boils down to one big game of chance, and it's best to be all-in.
A remake of the 1974 Gambler film starring James Caan, the 2014 Gambler is a philosophical stage play disguised as a Mark Wahlberg crime drama vehicle. The world of the film might be interesting for theater or literary buffs who dig the the movie's style of heightened language and philosophical pontificating - but for the average viewer, it's going to be a crude realization of misleading advertising and self-involved cerebral linguistics that are a hard and obtuse code to crack.
Directed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes helmer Rupert Wyatt, The Gambler has a solid visual shorthand and style to it that is actually one of the better aspects of the film. As stated, the staging of each scene is very theatrical (Broadway, not multiplex) and as such, Wyatt creates solid mis-en-scene setups that help imply more story and characterization through visual shorthand alone. The cinematography by Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty) has a washed-out and drab vividness that reflects both the bleak lows and enticing highs of a gambler's world.
At the same time, the narrative implications of the visual composition will be lost on quite a few viewers - not because they can't see it, but rather because they might not be looking for it. In a movie billed as an action-thriller, viewers may not be trying to interpret what the positioning of the characters, arrangement of a room, or the lighting therein says about a character's internal narrative or backstory. It's a film that is part genre fare (at its best when delivering thrilling scenes of high-stakes gambling) and part art-house fare (dealing with existential crisis), and stranded in that confusing middle, it never measures of to the standard of its director's talent.
That same issue either trickles down into, or originates from the script, which was written by Oscar-winner William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven, Edge of Darkness). Monahan's script adapts the story of James Toback, whose actual gambling exploits first inspired the 1974 film; only in this 2014 version, the character drama is saddled with an attempt at greater depth, with Monahan relying on lengthy explanations and pontifications where the original film preferred action and implication to convey its deeper themes and ideas.
Like with similar crime drama/literary art film mixes in recent years (The Counselor, Killing Them Softly), The Gambler is doomed by an 'oil and water' disparity that it can never conquer.
Even if you have the ear to interpret the heady dialogue, the actual scenes and subject matter of each conversation don't seem to flow together in any meaningfully developed or important way. Instead Things seem to meander from scene to scene, and the point (or impact) of one scene doesn't seem to carry over to the next. Worst of all, the figure at the center of it all (Jim) is so distant and cold that it's hard to sympathize with his plight, or take away much emotion from what is being expressed (told, not shown) in the convoluted dialogue.
It doesn't help that Wahlberg seems grossly out of place in the central role. Granted, a tough guy like James Caan was picked for the original (where he was also still a professor with a gambling problem). However, whenever Wahlberg has to lecture literature or wax philosophic, it immediately feels like a call-back to everything that made his performance in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening the butt of a joke that continues to this day. Of course, whenever Wahlberg is called on to crack wise or play tough in face of threat, the actor hits the sweet spot of his trademark persona.
The supporting cast falls into two camps: the gangsters in the film (played by The Wire's Michael K. Williams, John Goodman and Alvin Ing) are all given a lot of room to develop, and the three actors in the roles do a pretty good job adding dimension to each gangster (black, Jewish and Asian, respectively) to make each man interesting and three-dimensional. That's actually a pretty important function in the story, as their dealings with Jim (and their continued allowances of his attitude and behavior) are a hinge on which the arc of the narrative rests. With three solid performances, the stakes remain high, and the payout out the end is understandable (if not impactful).
In the other camp are supporting characters that have little impact (or much function) in the story. Female characters don't seem to be Monahan's forte, because Brie Larson's (21 Jump Street) love interest character, and Jessica Lange (American Horror Story) as Jim's mother feel more like plot devices with barely sketched personalities than actual fully-formed or relevant characters. Supporting males characters such as two student athletes played by Emory Cohen (Place Beyond the Pines) and newcomer Anthony Kelley - or an enforcer played by The Wire's Dominick Lombardozzi - feel even more like devices than characters, though given their small roles in the story, that's a bit more understandable.
In the end, The Gambler is pretty much a misfire of concept - even if it makes the admirable move of going for a different thematic angle on the original material. This is not one that should occupy your theater ticket time or money during the holiday moviegoing rush; it will be small Christmas miracle if - even in home viewing - you happen to fall into the narrow range of folks who will find this movie's odd-duck approach to your liking.
The Gambler is now playing in theaters. It is 111 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity.