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Film Review: ‘The Gambler’

There’s enough swaggering cynicism for three pictures but barely enough soul to sustain even one in Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler,” a stylish, energetic but disappointingly glib remake of Karel Reisz’s still-potent 1974 drama of the same title. Mark Wahlberg tears into one of his meatiest roles as an English professor drowning in a sea of blackjack debts and self-destructive impulses, a born risk-taker who’s aptly described as everything from “the kind of guy that likes to lose” to “the world’s stupidest asshole.” But it’s that surfeit of macho attitude in William Monahan’s script that keeps Wahlberg from coming anywhere near James Caan’s sly brilliance in the earlier film, making this a movie of slick, surface-level pleasures that’s unpersuasive at its core. In a roll of the awards-season dice, Paramount is launching “The Gambler” Dec. 19 with a one-week Oscar-qualifying run before its Jan. 2 wide release, when the collective draw of Wahlberg and a juicy supporting cast should yield solid if not hefty B.O. payouts.

Released just a month after “California Split,” Robert Altman’s more idiosyncratic take on the pleasures and perils of going all in, Reisz’s original “Gambler” marked the heavily autobiographical screenwriting debut of James Toback, who initially objected when Paramount announced plans for a remake without his knowledge. (The scribe has since given the project his blessing and received an exec producer credit, while original producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff retain those credits here.) In its broad narrative outlines if not its jazzier sense of style, the remake remains largely faithful to Toback’s self-probing study of a Harvard-educated New York academic who finds himself increasingly at the mercy of his gambling addiction, alienating his nearest and dearest while seeking to evade and outwit all the bookies and collectors on his tail.

In this Los Angeles-set retelling, Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a cynical motormouth who spends most of his evenings at the blackjack tables and roulette wheels of a Korean-run establishment, where he’s racked up enough debt that the casino’s tolerant owner, Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), can no longer turn a blind eye. Learning that he has one week to pay back $240,000 or face grievous consequences, Bennett makes his situation immediately worse by accepting $50,000 from a beret-wearing loan shark named Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), establishing a pattern of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and squandering every bailout that comes his way. On more than one occasion, Bennett approaches big-time lender Frank (a superb, bald-pated John Goodman), who warns him not to make the mistake of appropriating his services, lest he find himself forced to pay the ultimate price.

Bennett’s compulsion springs at least partly from his privileged upbringing, and he reacts with more contempt than gratitude when his acerbic mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), coughs up the requisite quarter-million in cash, though she warns him that it’s the last time she’ll come to his rescue. But a solution that easy would scarcely satisfy the story’s dramatic requirements, much less Bennett himself, who seems hooked on more than just the possibility of winning big. What excites him is the far more dangerous thrill of pushing himself to the limits and potentially losing everything, so that he can rely on his wits and sheer dumb luck to pull himself back from the brink. When a concerned croupier balks at dealing him another hand, telling him it’s for his own good, Bennett fires back: “You don’t come here for the fucking protection.”

By day, Bennett (sort of) teaches a college class on the modern novel, which mainly consists of bashing the know-nothings and burnouts who call themselves his students, using Shakespeare and Camus to pound home the idea that only a few lucky geniuses are able to rise above mediocrity in their chosen field. One such exception is Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a quietly brilliant literature student and part-time casino employee who knows about her professor’s double life (shades of “Half Nelson”), which naturally leads them to the next level of inappropriate intimacy. But Amy isn’t the only pupil who will figure into Bennett’s escape plan: The others are Dexter (Emory Cohen), a state tennis champ, and Lamar (Anthony Kelley), a GPA-challenged basketball star who might be just what Bennett needs to dig himself out of his latest hole.

Virtually without exception, the dialogue in “The Gambler” is pitched at a level of caustic, hyper-articulate, testosterone-fueled bluster that swiftly announces itself as Monahan’s handiwork. In that respect, the script proves a sturdy fit for Wahlberg, who may be no viewer’s idea of a professorial type, but who knows how to toss off Monahan’s profane zingers with aplomb, as he did in his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Departed.” Here, playing a guy so bored with his coddled, complacent existence that he can only feel alive by risking everything, Wahlberg proves no less ferociously eloquent — too eloquent, frankly, to the point where you wish that Bennett would spend less time sounding off about what an empty shell he’s become, and more time simply being.

There are a few attempts to underline the notion that this guy is sinking in own excesses, particularly in the surreal use of water imagery; in one dreamlike interlude, a bathtub (a nod to a scene in the 1974 film) briefly opens a window into his childlike soul. But in the end, “The Gambler” doesn’t seem especially interested in exploring these tortured depths. Even as a clock counts down the days to his deadline (a device that generates little in the way of suspense), Bennett doesn’t really deepen in complexity or pathos; he just gets snarkier and more self-satisfied. Given his near-total disregard for his own safety, it almost feels like a waste of energy for a viewer to root for him to survive, or to take much pleasure in the film’s softly redemptive ending; by the time Bennett finally takes a well-deserved punch from one of Mr. Lee’s thugs, you may feel less inclined to flinch than to cheer.

Neither of the two actresses is well served by the script’s awfully stunted view of women, though Lange succeeds in upping the emotional ante in her few scenes as the embittered mother, reacting to her son’s dilemma with equal parts scorn and horror. Larson, so good in last year’s “Short Term 12,” is a wonderfully poised presence here, but it’s one of the film’s more glaring failures that it gives us no real sense of Amy’s intellectual potential; the moment she falls into bed with Bennett is the moment she ceases to be a figure of interest. Williams, Ing and especially Goodman deliver uniquely pungent variations on the role of the reluctant enforcer, waxing philosophical about their methods and never resorting to physical violence unless absolutely necessary, while Richard Schiff has an amusing scene as a pawnbroker whom our hero approaches in his hour of need.

Wyatt, the accomplished helmer behind 2011’s terrific “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and the under-appreciated 2008 prison drama “The Escapist,” keeps the energy percolating at a high level throughout — mainly through a stream of arresting and unpredictable musical choices that include Chopin, Cole Porter and Bob Dylan, encompassing everything from Dinah Washington’s soulful “This Bitter Earth” to Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ haunting a cappella cover of “Creep.” (Wyatt shares the music-supervisor credits with Theo Green and Clint Bennett.) Pete Beaudreau’s editing is sharpest in the casino, where the rapid-fire blackjack games naturally heighten one’s attention; a time-lapse gambling sequence and a few tilt-shift effects further distinguish d.p. Greig Fraser’s often dark and moody visuals, which make atmospheric use of recognizable L.A. landmarks (including USC and Downtown) as well as other California locations.

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