Politics & Policy

Addicted to Risk

Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler
The Gambler’s filmmakers are hampered by the same illusion as their character.

The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg as Jim Bennett and directed by Ryan Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), is a remake of a minor classic from the early 1970s starring James Caan. Both films capture rather nicely the way in which high-stakes gambling is not just a bad habit but a consuming way of life organized around the pursuit of moments of tantalizing excess. (James Toback’s script for the original, on which the new film remains loosely based, was semi-autobiographical.) As an English professor by day and gambler by night, Wahlberg brings an infectious energy to the role of the quick-witted, ironic, and pugnacious gambler. His devotion to risk at all costs, to proving himself against the highest odds, means that each scene is latent with both self-destructive and darkly comic possibilities. Wahlberg’s performance, combined with a well-paced plot, makes this an entertaining film.

And yet, on a deeper level, the film unravels. Through its main character, the film claims to see through the bankruptcy and banality of ordinary lives stitched together by a series of compromises. And while it purports to explore the troubling consequences of Bennett’s alternative path, it veers away, in a manner the original film does not, from those consequences. Thus a fundamental dishonesty, a failure to reckon with consequences, renders the note of redemption in the finale facile and unconvincing.

The film opens with Bennett making an evening visit to a Korean-run gambling establishment, where he wagers on blackjack and roulette as if he were playing with Monopoly money. When a card dealer informs that he has reached the house limit and explains that the policy is for his own protection, he quips, “You don’t come here for the f***ing protection.”

As much as he loves the emotional extremes of gambling, he seems equally to revel in being seen by others as the supreme risk-taker among fellow risk-takers. As his antics draw the attention of everyone in the establishment, he catches the eye of Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a part-time casino employee who — we soon learn — also happens to be a student in his college class on the modern novel.

When he racks up such an extensive debt that the proprietor, Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), cuts him off and threatens him if he fails to pay what he owes (in excess of $240,000), he increases his debt and risk by borrowing $50,000 on the spot from a loan shark, Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), who promptly watches him lose that money as well.

Aiming to consolidate his loans, Bennett seeks the help of big money-lender Frank (John Goodman). In the first of a number of scene-stealing moments, Goodman’s Frank greets Bennett in a sauna. Frank’s nearly naked body is a misshapen lump of obese flesh, with a bald head stuck on top. Goodman’s character is a cross between Fat Bastard from Austin Powers and the Goodman character in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. More than the other money-lenders, Frank has an interest in probing Bennett’s twisted motives. When, at the end of their first meeting, Frank insists that Bennett voice the words “I am not a man” as a condition of making the loan, Bennett balks.

As those around him shudder at the risks he is taking, Bennett shrugs and issues a series of ironic one-liners. Dramatic escalation is at the heart of his public persona.

Through most of the film, Bennett is indifferent to consequences not only for himself but also for others. He involves a talented basketball player, a student in his literature class, in a point-shaving scheme and treats his own mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), whom he blames for the breakup of his parents’ marriage, with contempt. Aside from Goodman’s acting job, which is just a redo of many other parts he has played, Lange, as a mother who is alternately caring and infuriated, chastising and hysterical, gives the most compelling supporting performance in the film. The Gambler would be much improved if Lange’s Roberta had a larger part in it. Roberta’s having an expanded role would necessitate Bennett’s being more nuanced and capable of something more than insouciant derision toward her. As the script is written, however, she is — and can be — nothing more than a foil to Bennett’s self-indulgence.

Amy represents the possibility of escape from the madness of the gambling life. In class after their chance meeting at the gambling joint, Bennett — whose teaching style is exactly what one would expect if Mark Wahlberg walked into a college classroom and simply began talking — launches into a screed about the mediocrity of everyone in the room, including himself. Uncomfortable with the idea that not everyone is equally magnificent, a female student balks at Bennett’s claim. To her bland assertion, “We all have something to offer,” Bennett responds, “Bulls**t!”

In the midst of the rant, he notes one exception, that of a student in their midst who never draws attention to herself but whose writing shows potential for greatness. Of course, it’s Amy. But her character is another glaring weakness in the film. Brie Larson does reasonably well with what she’s given, but what she’s given is ill conceived and undeveloped. She is supposed to be a writer with genius-level talent, who simultaneously works night shifts at a gambling joint and is too shy even to speak in class. Except for a taciturn affection for Bennett and an occasional glibness that nearly rises to the level of Bennett’s own insouciant irony, she comes off flat. Her genius is nothing more than an assertion, and her willingness suddenly to follow Bennett anywhere, first into bed and then into the most dangerous of situations, is hardly credible.

On this score, the original film, with Lauren Hutton as the gambler’s love interest, is far superior. The writers of that script made Hutton’s character an adult and did not burden her with the absurd combination of traits imposed on Larson. She’s perceptive, not a genius, and while she’s attracted to the gambler, she remains circumspect.

With Amy, Bennett comes the closest to unmasking his real motives. He rejects finitude and limitation and seeks unlimited things. He simultaneously harbors a fantasy that one can pass through nothingness to regeneration. His plan is to “get to nothing” and then “start over.”

Neither Wahlberg’s character nor the filmmakers see that this is yet another version of the gambler’s illusion that a cataclysmic moment of risk can transform everything. The original film was darker and more frank. Its unhappy ending contained a kind wisdom to which the new version is oblivious. There is no panacea for dark obsessions that have become deeply rooted in the human soul.

Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published in 2012 by Baylor University Press.  

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