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Review: 'The Gambler' is a faithless remake (in a good way)

Mark Wahlberg, screenwriter William Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt team up to make an angry, sarcastic redo of a '70s classic.
The Gambler

"The Gambler," with Mark Wahlberg, is saved by a very strong, sometimes strange seParamount Pictures

‘The Gambler’
Director:
Rupert Wyatt
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Despite what purists say, the less faithful a movie remake, the better it may be. There’s little point in straight-up redoing a film that already exists — even one, like 1974’s “The Gambler,” which is very hard to find — much like there’s little reason to bother with a song cover that sounds just like the original. That said, it’s possible the new do of “The Gambler” goes too far. In the original, James Caan played a gambling addict — based on screenwriter James Toback’s own experiences — who suffered from the gambling dilemma: winning could never make him happy; only the actual act of gambling makes him happy. Winning or losing don’t matter; it’s the act itself that does.

Mark Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett, by contrast, isn’t really a gambler. He doesn’t feel that rush. He simply uses high-stakes gambling to get at his real pursuit: destroying his life so that, should he still be alive afterwards, he can build himself anew. Screenwriter William Monahan (reuniting with his “The Departed” costar) has said he wasn’t really interested in the original’s plight; he’s even said “I don’t believe in addiction.” (Like the characters in his movies, the real-life Monahan seems to enjoy saying things just to get a rise.) Instead, the antihero becomes the secret hero. He’s still a professor, firing off rock star monologues in which he upsets students with his nihilistic ideals. But he’s also a rich kid who hates himself and his life, who purposefully racks up serious debt with three people to whom you don’t want to owe money, including one played by a usually shirtless John Goodman.

It’s not surprising when this builds to a conclusion that’s the exact opposite of the original’s Harlem whorehouse shocker. (In fact, it goes so far in the other direction that it plays like the enforced happy ending of “The Last Laugh.” It even blasts the same empowering/anthemic M83 number used by every other movie.) What saves it is its a—hole attitude. Monahan is a peerless writer of sharp-witted insults and miserable utterances, which Wahlberg — not always the most articulate of actors — knows how to rattle off. Wahlberg’s Jim is hate-filled and pitiless, never once begging for viewer sympathy but wildly charismatic nonetheless. Rupert Wyatt, previously a genre director (of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), matches Monahan’s nervous, sarcastic energy, keeping things revved-up but goofy enough to drown the soundtrack with Pulp’s “Common People" — because it's a song mocking bored richies like Jim, and becausethat would be a pretty leftfield song choice for a movie about a self-destructive jerk.

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So much of what happens in “The Gambler” is overly pat, whereas the original was unmoored and unsure. Then again, the basic premise is still very, very dark. Jim winds up in a situation where he could live or die, one he intentionally drives himself to, staring potential actual destruction right in the eye. Wahlberg is flat-out terrific in the role, which calls on him to do the smart-mouth routine he tends to save for supporting characters but do it at a film’s center. He, Monahan and Wyatt are all working at the same level of comic intensity, and the thrill of the ride with them is enough to distract from some conceptual sloppiness. After all, this “Gambler” is a Hollywood product not only approaches death, but burns five minutes of screentime on its protagonist making fun of people who don’t think William Shakespeare wrote the works of William Shakespeare.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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