The Gambler. 2014
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Michael K. Williams, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, and George Kennedy
A literature college professor and high stakes gambler runs afoul of a loan shark and his bodyguard-like gangsters while he has an affair with one of his students.
There is such a thing as an unlikable protagonist, and it’s often something that can work and be as riveting as a hero you want to root for. The Gambler goes this route with Mark Wahlberg’s self-destructive, suicidal performance of a man that creates problems because dealing with them is the only way he can feel alive, but it’s a miscalculation, and not due to the acting talent on display from Wahlberg. Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes) has brought to life a character that just feels bratty and entitled; something that works against getting audiences to invest in an unlikable protagonist.
It is clear that Jim Bennett has a troubled past – disappearing father, rocky relationship with his mother, seemingly hates his job as a college professor and previous endeavors into writing – but neither direction nor the script can elicit a feeling of sympathy or even understanding towards his actions. He seems to despise the fact that he was born with many privileges, wanting to eradicate them all and bring himself back to zero. Of course, his outlet to accomplish this is by gambling away everything he has at casinos, while simultaneously getting himself in debt from those in charge, and even gangsters.
It’s a shame that Bennett is virtually unlikable because the scenes of him playing Blackjack or betting ridiculous sums of money on a color are intensely filmed, and elicit the dramatic situations of real-life gambling. With how methodical and carefully crafted the gambling scenes are, Rupert Wyatt probably could have had Hitler as the hero and still have been able to make viewers want the risks go the way of the player. These scenes aren’t thrilling to watch because of the narrative, but simply because of their shot composition.
Essentially, if there were a diverse and interesting cast of characters surrounding the story, The Gambler’s moments of all or nothing would have a lot more kick to them. Instead, though scenes are supplemented by Bennett falling into inappropriate relationships, mouthing off to his mother that gives him 250k, snarky teaching his literature course, and generally being an asshole for the entire running time. None of the other characters help the situation either. Take the painfully generic student love interest that Bennett obtains; nothing about the romance actually feels natural or complex. It’s just something to push the movie along and inevitably give him redemption worth achieving. No matter how hard the script tries to add complexity to the supporting cast, that is all they are there for.
The villains of the film fare somewhat better as they are embodied by some likable actors that deliver some fun performances. Most notable is John Goodman and his amusingly philosophical conversations about the nature of being able to tell anyone “Fuck you”. Michael K Williams also plays a fairly intimidating gangster, which isn’t surprising as he’s fantastic on Boardwalk Empire.
Perhaps the most interesting point about The Gambler though is that it does contain one of the better performances of Mark Wahlberg’s career. He certainly does make you want to strangle his childish and entitled behind, and definitely comes across as troubled, but the movie just doesn’t work. It also doesn’t help that the nature of the plot is fairly predictable and cliché.
The Gambler is a film that is directed with nice cinematography, fresh outlooks on the city of Los Angeles, a fitting soundtrack featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, and some solid performances across the board; it’s simply the story that isn’t brought to life in a way that can make us root for anyone. You’re just going to spend the two hours annoyed by all of the stupid decisions Bennett makes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. He currently writes for Flickering Myth, We Got This Covered, and Wrestle Enigma. Follow me on Twitter.