I used to have this half-baked theory that Mark Wahlberg made all of his bad career decisions early on during his Marky Mark years. It was a flimsy idea because it totally ignored movies like Fear (1996) and The Big Hit (1998), but the intentions behind the theory were good — Wahlberg is a good actor. I’m tempted to say “was a good actor,” because I think this has been lost in a slew of bad decisions — bottoming out with this year’s Transformers: Age of Extinction. I suppose what I’ve learned is that the man can only rise as high as the movie which contains him. Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler is a film which has assembled the parts to allow Wahlberg’s talents to come through.
The film, at its core, is nothing more than a character study of a man who wants — for a number of complex reasons — to self-destruct. Wahlberg plays Jim (a role played by James Caan in Karel Reisz’s 1974 original), a college professor who, despite a good job and affluent upbringing, cannot stop himself from gambling. Not helping things is Jim’s inability to quit when he’s ahead, a habit that continually pushes him toward annihilation. The reasons for this are numerous, from issues with his exorbitantly rich grandfather (George Kennedy) leaving nothing to him in his will to a general dissatisfaction with life itself (that Camus’ The Stranger pops up is no coincidence), though generally this is a portrait of a man struggling with addiction. Regardless, Jim’s reasons have ended in him owing a few unsavory people a whole lot of money, with the consequence of not paying up obviously violent and dire.
This is what pushes the film forward, as Jim tries to figure out ways of paying off his debt (or not paying it off, since the idea of him having a death wish isn’t out of the question). Part of the problem, conceptually, is buying Wahlberg as a literature professor, which likely brings forth flop sweats in people who remember him playing a science teacher in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008). Forever haunted by his underwear model days, this ignores past performances in movies like David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) that proved he can deliver this kind of erudite dialogue. This, however, is a much angrier role for Wahlberg in a much nastier film, filled with unpleasant gangsters and a never ending feeling of impending doom (which, I might say, does a nice job of creating actual, honest-to-God suspense).
Thankfully, the screenplay’s intelligent and literate, never quite wallowing in its own muck, while the cast — from an excellent John Goodman to Jessica Lange to Michael Kenneth Williams actually being given something to do in a movie — has enough innate charm to keep everything engaging. At the same time, there are a handful of moments of simple joy, like a scene set to Pulp’s “Common People” (at the very least, the movie has the year’s best soundtrack) that excellently evokes nothing more than being in a good mood, of all things. It’s a small touch among a few small touches that keeps the movie human. While The Gambler inevitably falls short of greatness (or even the occasional feel of “importance” that creeps in through the seams), it’s much better than its critical reception would leave you to believe. Rated R for language throughout and for some sexuality/nudity.