“I think you’re the kind of guy who likes to lose”
I was very surprised to see James Toback‘s name as Executive Producer on The Gambler remake after reading a 2011 editorial explaining how he found out about the project secondhand after it was already announced that William Monahan was adapting his original script for Martin Scorsese. While this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise in a Hollywood where studios give EP credits to anyone they feel a need to appease and have no remorse retooling properties without caring about the creators from whom they purchased them, Toback did have reason to be angry since the 1974 film was in fact autobiographical. Having also gone through the remake process before on Jacques Audiard‘s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (based on his directorial debut Fingers) with full transparency only made the silent treatment sting even more this time around.
Finally completed and in theaters, the new version retains its catalyst in Monahan, but Scorsese was eventually replaced by Rupert Wyatt and his muse Leonardo DiCaprio swapped with Mark Wahlberg. I do wonder what it would have looked like with those two still involved, but not too hard since Wyatt and Wahlberg have done an adequate job bringing Monahan’s rousing dialogue to life. I almost felt as though I was watching a David Mamet film the way each conversation felt precisely timed and spoken out-of-breath yet completely controlled. Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett is a showy, self-hating writer slumming it as a professor because the university allows him to do so. He preaches existential quandaries during the day—telling his students they’ll never have what it takes—and charms his way towards an early grave with gangsters at night.
Don’t call Jim a gambler, though. He is, obviously, but this compulsion exists for reasons other than the rush. He plays hard to lose everything because that’s how he’ll be able to start fresh away from the aura of an affluent family. Everyone Jim engages with whether at the school or on the streets mentions his grandfather and the respect and business acumen he possessed. Now that the old man has died and left his grandson nothing, his shadow has consumed Jim whole. So he plays to burn money, not acquire more. He seeks the punishment murderers coming to collect late payments provide because it’s easier to give up than try. One mediocre novel may have told him his dream had extinguished, but an intelligent young student (Brie Larson‘s Amy) shows he might have some life yet.
There’s entertainment to the suspense as Jim rapidly descends into a self-made hell at the hands of Korean casino owner Mister Lee (Alvin Ing), charismatically violent loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), and ferocious gangster Frank (John Goodman). A dance commences between these four parties with some crackling dialogue as each tests the other to see how far he’ll go. Jim may have refused to see past his own wellbeing at the reality that his death wouldn’t stop these monsters from going after the ones he loves posthumously, but the adrenaline kicks in once that realization succinctly presents itself as threat. Yes he wants to rid himself of his mother (Jessica Lange), but that doesn’t mean he wants her dead. And as for Amy, no attempt at distance will make his debtors unsee their connection.
Rather than just be a simple thriller against inevitability, however, The Gambler does a great job showing how low Jim is and the allure of addiction that put him there. Toback wrote how his original script spoke to many who were caught in the lifestyle just like he was and if Monahan’s version is even half as effective I believe it. There’s a palpable danger underlying each frame and not just because of the hardened criminals popping in regularly to flex muscle. When Lange’s Roberta returns to buy her son out of trouble one last time you can’t help get the wind knocked out of you as a result of her heartbreaking performance. This is the sight of a loved one helpless to do anything when the only solution she can provide is a huge part of the problem.
Strip away Wyatt’s visual flourishes like counting down the seven days Jim has to pay with large superimposed letters onscreen and you’ll see that the story resonates on a deeper level due to the writing and acting. This truth, however, does less for the film’s own appeal than increase my desire to seek out the original from Toback’s pen and director Karel Reisz‘s camera. To think that a story can still entertain despite being thrice removed from its reality only makes you wonder at its source’s potency. Without having seen it also gives me pause in crediting Monahan with the bulk of this iteration’s success since I’m unsure how much of it is truly his. One thing I will say, though, is that Wahlberg should stick with him because he’s as good as his Oscar-nominated role in The Departed.
It’s crazy to think someone so ill-equipped to be a teacher in The Happening can believably pull it off in The Gambler, but here we are. A lot of it has to do with the type of person the character is because Wahlberg excels at troubled, fast-talking con men like the Jim Bennett behind his nameplate’s occupation. It’s one thing to be innocently excited about science and bees and a complete other to engage a room of co-eds with straight talk to humanize star tennis player Dexter (Emory Cohen) and basketball prodigy Lamar (Anthony Kelley) while also admitting the world’s commodification of them. There’s little gray area for Jim, you either have it or you don’t no matter the vocation. Life has always been all or nothing for him, gambling simply distills it to a starker black and white.
 Photo credit: Claire Folger. Left to right: Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett and Brie Larson is Amy Phillips in THE GAMBLER, from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Claire Folger. Left to right: Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett and John Goodman is Frank in THE GAMBLER, from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Claire Folger. Michael Kenneth Williams is Neville Baraka in THE GAMBLER, from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.