In the remake of 1974's THE GAMBLER, Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) directs a reworked screenplay by William Monahan. Not knowing when to stand, the film doubles down on narrative bets until its plot and protagonist go bust.
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a self-loathing author and English professor at an unnamed Los Angeles college. His personal life is in shambles due to his longstanding gambling addiction.
Jim borrows and wagers his way into debt to Korean mobsters and a streetwise loan shark named Neville (Michael K. Williams), and his options to escape bodily harm or worse become limited. When his wealthy mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) loans him money to get out of hock, he promptly blows it all at the blackjack table. So Jim hits up the foreboding Frank (John Goodman), who sternly warns Jim that it's only a matter of time before he'll welch on that debt, too, requiring Frank to permanently cancel Jim's account.
The supporting cast is riveting: Goodman and Lange haven't had roles this meaty in years, and they obligingly chew the scenery. But The Gambler rises and falls with Wahlberg, whose irritating interpretation makes Jim both unlikeable and inscrutable. He's mostly a self-destructive mess with a deathwish, projecting his inner tumult onto his family and students, especially Amy (Brie Larson), who promptly takes a shine to her degenerate teach.
However, Wahlberg can't help but portray the cool of a con man—that's how he usually plays his roles. His conflicting take is exacerbated by a climactic grift that makes you wonder if Jim had more control over his chronic, unmanageable illness than previously suggested, and this undermines much of the character development. We're left wondering what really conquers his demons: love, fear or simply a desire to stretch the film's running time.
This article appeared in print with the headline "(Escape) Home for the holidays."