Starring: Mark Wahlberg & John Goodman
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
The new Mark Wahlberg film, “The Gambler,” is based on the 1974 film of the same name that starred Sunnyside native James Caan who was at the peak of his career coming off both “Brian’s Song” and “The Godfather.” In the film, Caan played Axel Freed, a literature professor at an unnamed New York college, who had a serious gambling addiction and found himself $44,000 in debt which was very serious money during the Watergate era.
Fast forward 40 years and Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett, an English prof at an unnamed LA university. Jim is a novelist manque whose most recent book sold a paltry 17,000 copies and it’s clear that its commercial failure has taken a toll on him as he constantly berates his students. He does have a soft spot however for Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a top student who is very attractive yet quite shy, and a star basketball player, Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), who has NBA aspirations and is a lot sharper than he lets on.
Like Caan’s Axel Freed, Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett is a gambling addict whose habit forces him to make the acquaintance of underworld figures who want a return of their principal along with an exorbitant return on their investment.
That is where the similarities end however. Axel Freed had a great relationship with his family and was a generally content person with the exception of his gambling vice. Jim Bennett is self-loathing and hates his very distant mother who places material things above love. He claims that he wants to get rid of all of his possessions but he loves driving his fancy sports car, wearing his Armani suites, and living in a beautiful condo.
Bennett represents the prototypical hardcore gaming addict who doesn’t seem to care whether he wins or loses as long as he has action. When on a good run at the blackjack table Jim inevitably lets every chip ride until he goes bust on a hand and loses it all. Inevitably he has to be extended lines of credit, known in the trade as being staked, by some nefarious types.
As was the case with Nicolas Cage’s “Leaving Las Vegas,” it is very difficult to watch a film where the lead character is self-destructive but “The Gambler” is so good that it’s worth the effort. Although he doesn’t get the celebrity gossip media buzz that say George Clooney, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt do, Wahlberg has long proven to be one of Hollywood’s dependable leading men. I would bet that the grosses of his recent films are greater than that of any of the aforementioned trio.
As good as Mark Wahlberg is here it’s his supporting cast that makes this film. Screenwriter William Monahan of “The Departed” fame, has wisely created mobster loan sharks three-dimensional characters who have offbeat senses of humor. Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), is a Korean underworld figure who is enthralled by Bennett’s brazenness, while Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) is the Chris Tucker of thugs with his witty repartee and wild gesticulations. Outdoing both of them however is Frank (John Goodman) who prides himself as a lender of last resort and spouts gritty philosophical truisms. What’s unusual is that Frank is actually rooting for Jim to clean up his act and rid himself of his gambling habit.
Monahan smartly avoids cliches by underplaying Jim’s relationship with his top student, Amy. They spend some time together on-screen but it doesn’t dominate the storyline. 25 year-old Brie Larson, who reminds me of indie film actress Greta Gerwig with her combination of smarts and girl-next-door beauty, has a bright future.
Just as the original “Gambler” made great use of the non-tourist sections of New York (some of it was filmed in Rego Park), this semi-remake makes great use of LA neighborhoods that have not been overly saturated in the movies such as Pacific Palisades, Koreatown, and Boyle Heights.
“The Gambler” is worth the ticket-buying gamble.