Strange enough, gambling is no longer only an activity where people around the world can lose every dollar in their wallet in a matter of hours. It has also left its mark on countless films. With motion pictures such as 21 and 1974's The Gambler, quite a few features have either centered their plot around gambling, or simply utilize it as a backdrop for the story to unfold in. Director Rupert Wyatt and Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monoahan have remade the 1974 film in order to bring audiences closer to this world of chance. However, there are several directions that a filmmaker could take this story in. Rather than watching the lead simply play the game, The Gambler is very much a film about risk and addiction, but with a sense of style.
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a literature professor by day, and a gambler by night. He finds himself in a tremendous amount of debt, and if he doesn't pay it back, then both his safety and that of his family are at risk. Desperate for help, he must turn to his mother (Jessica Lange) and a loan shark for some extra cash. When he develops an inappropriate relationship with student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), he further complicates the situation. If he hopes to pay off the massive debt that he's in, then he must be willing to risk it all in a desperate attempt to start over fresh.
It doesn't take very long to find Jim at the blackjack table, as he enters a fancy establishment. He expects to play large stakes, as he risks thousands of dollars in order to pay back a very dangerous man that he owes money to. The trick that screenwriter William Monahan understands is that in order for there to be genuine tension, the risk needs to feel real. This suspense is successfully delivered, as Jim doesn't win each and every game. He makes some strong educated guesses, but even he isn't able to win every time that he bets money. As the stakes continue to escalate, the audience becomes increasingly fascinated by the game. However, if you're expecting this to be all about gambling, then you're going to be a bit disappointed. While it's most certainly a part of the film, it's largely a single piece in what can otherwise be considered a character study of a man with a serious addiction. Many individuals that he meets call this the desire for suicide, but he continues to maintain his composure through it all. Those around him continue to question whether it's all for attention, or if he really has a death wish, as he has no problem borrowing even more money from other dangerous people, who are willing to do anything in order to get their money back in full. It truly makes for an intriguing dramatic thriller.
This all builds to the idea that life is a gamble, and nothing is for certain. This proves to have a positive correlation with nearly every aspect of Jim's life, and it most certainly affects his decision-making. As a professor of literature, it can even be found within his lectures. However, his disgust in the world and his inner-most demons are certainly taken out on the students, as he claims, "If you're not a genius, then don't bother." Singling out Amy Phillips as the only student with any potential, he angers many of her fellow classmates. While some of these sequences are essential to the film's message and understanding Jim's character, some of these bits go on for a bit too long. In fact, the "gamble" that Jim takes by having an inappropriate relationship with Amy isn't handled very well. She brings a few ideas to Jim's attention, and in turn, forces him to question his life choices. Unfortunately, the character herself feels like an afterthought. She's more of a plot device than she is a living, breathing character that makes us feel anything. It's as if she's only there to move the plot and the lead character forward, as the filmmakers have no issue incorporating her into the story, and then dropping her. The connection that Jim has with Amy is had the potential to really mean somthing, and it's a shame that this couldn't have been explored further.
Unfortunately, the sub-plot of Amy Phillips isn't the only poorly-handled element, as one involving a bet made on a basketball game goes on for far too long. It thwarts the overall pacing and the fluid tone that had been created previously in order to fit in another character. Director Rupert Wyatt and writer William Monahan attempt to create tension out of this sub-plot, although it does the exact opposite. Rather, it creates a lull that the picture isn't able to recover from quite fast enough. Even so, the third act ultimately manages to create character revelations and interactions that work relatively well. While the ending may not be very shocking, it's the way the role is handled that makes it work so well. While some of it may be a bit "on-the-nose," the symbolism behind many of Jim's mottos and life rules reflect upon the overall feature. The ideas are firmly grasped by the picture, which is a lot more than what many other modern films can say, even if it can sometimes be a bit too obvious with its concepts.
Whether we're talking about the lead role or the supporting ones, The Gambler features a round of recognizable faces in nearly every direction that you turn. Mark Wahlberg is fitting as Jim Bennett. While the performance isn't necessarily anything to write home about, he successfully delivers this character to the screen. Jessica Lange may not have much time on screen, but she steals the spotlight each and every time in the role of Jim's mother, Roberta. While we never get the chance to necessarily learn very much about her, she pulls out some of the more subtle aspects in the character that wouldn't have been present otherwise. Brie Larson is criminally underutilized, although she remains believable in the role of Amy Phillips. However, it's a real shame that she never gets the chance to do much of anything with her dynamic range. John Goodman is exceptional as Frank. Being one of the dangerous men that Jim owes money to, this character is both threatening and humorous. Goodman is the perfect man for the part, as he delivers both aspects of the role to perfection. While most of the cast aren't utilized to their full potential, they manage to create something special here.
There's a lot of good to be found in The Gambler, especially when examining the lead character and the picture's themes of risk and addiction. However, the screenplay maintains a relatively superficial filter that hinders the film from truly exploring the depths of what this story has to offer. Two major sub-plots feel like an afterthought, as they appear to only be present in order to move Jim's character forwards. Even so, this is a film that remains engaging throughout its duration, as it features compelling drama, well-written dialogue, and actual tension in the various games of risk, which is more than most similar films can claim. The Gambler is one of those rare remakes that actually works. Recommended.