Very Good (3 stars)
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, and pervasive profanity
Running time: 101 minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
By day, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is an English Literature professor whose questionable teaching method involves berating his blasé students by suggesting that none of them will ever amount to anything. He reserves all his praise for the only person in the class exhibiting any promise as a writer, the brilliant and beautiful, but modest, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson).
Amy also works part-time at a gambling casino that her teacher just happens to frequent, since Jim is a high-roller sorely in need of Gambler’s Anonymous. After all, the odds are stacked way in favor of the house where, the longer you play, the more you lose.
But Professor Bennett must have flunked statistics, since he foolishly pushes his luck at Black Jack and Roulette and proceeds to fritter away more than he could ever afford. Consequently, he eventually finds himself in hock to the tune of a quarter-million dollars to Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the exploitative casino owner who’d gladly extended a long line of credit to the hopelessly compulsive gambler.
Given seven days to pay off the I.O.U. before having his proverbial kneecaps broken by Lee’s goons, the desperate debtor approaches everyone from his mom (Jessica Lange) to a ghetto loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) to a well-heeled mobster (John Goodman) for an emergency loan. Trouble is, rather than clearing his tab with the cash he collects, Jim’s so controlled by his habit that he heads right back to the casino tables.
Thus unfolds “The Gambler,” a riveting remake loosely based on the 1974 classic starring James Caan. Trim and impassioned, Mark Wahlberg handles the title role in this witty, gritty overhaul of the original relying upon a well-crafted screenplay by Oscar-winner William Monahan (for The Departed).
The cautionary tale basically chronicles the gradual glide into depravity of an unrepentant loser in denial. During that frightening tailspin, Jim is enabled by several of his students, including flattered love interest Amy, basketball All-American Lamar (Anthony Kelley) and promising tennis prodigy Dexter (Emory Cohen). The only question is whether the pathetic prof will be able to pull out of the spiral before crashing and burning.
This searing character study unfolds against a variety of visually-captivating L.A. locales ranging from the seamy to the posh, and is underscored by an appropriately-gritty soundtrack. Director Rupert Wyatt’s (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) job was ostensibly made that much easier by the A-list supporting cast featuring Oscar-winners George Kennedy (for Cool Hand Luke) and Jessica Lange (for Tootsie and Blue Sky), as well as veteran thespians John Goodman, Leland Orser and Michael Kenneth Williams.
If only the self-destructive protagonist were a sympathetic soul instead of a real lout you’d rather root against than for.