Moviegoers who understand what massive debt feels like — that oppressively helpless feeling that keeps you awake spinning, hatching and scheming for ways to get out from under it — may feel a special kinship to Mark Wahlberg’s remake of James Caan’s 1974 film, The Gambler. It’s a stressful experience, watching a man make the same mistakes over and over again, digging himself deeper and deeper into a debt that seems so impossible to reconcile that, at certain points, you find yourself wishing that the protagonist would take his own life to spare himself and the audience the anxiety of watching him fail.
In The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a literature professor and mid-list novelist disappointed with his own mediocrity. He has a problem, but it’s not necessarily a gambling addiction; gambling is just how it manifests itself. He believes in being the best or the worst, and he’s unsatisfied with anything in between. He wants all or nothing, and he has no idea how to walk away. He can take a $10,000 chip and turn it into $200,000 and then blow it all on one bet. The money is not the point. The high of winning big is the point, and since no amount is big enough to achieve a high sufficiently satisfying to him, obliterative defeat is apparently the closest substitute.
As you can imagine, this kind of behavior gets Bennett in trouble with various bad guys, including a the head of the Korean mafia (Alvin Ing), a bookie (Michael K. Williams), and a loan shark (John Goodman). Instead of using loans from one bad guy to pay off another bad guy, however, Bennett continues to dig himself deeper, blowing it all on blackjack and roulette, including a $250,000 loan he convinces his mother to give him to spare his (and potentially her) life.
While Wahlberg initially feels miscast (where’s the heist?! why aren’t there any explosions?! when is he going to gun everyone down?), he eventually grows into the role, and once you adjust your expectations, The Gambler feels less like a Wahlberg film and more like the love child of Wonder Boys fucking Tin Cup with a two-sided dildo. As far as movies to model yourself after, you could hardly hit a sweeter spot for me, especially once it’s combined with those familiar feelings of massive indebtedness (I ran out of the theater and immediately paid a few lingering debts I’d simply not gotten around to it just shake that feeling of owing someone money).
That said, not everything works in The Gambler. As fond as I am of Brie Larson, her college student/romantic interest felt both unnecessary and squicky given the age difference and the professor/student relationship, and the plot thread involving Bennett’s mother didn’t add much to the movie beyond an excuse to give Jessica Lange some work.
But Goodman, as you might expect, is a goddamn beast in a small supporting role, and Wahlberg holds his own in one of the more challenging roles of his career. He has some difficulties believably spinning bullshit literary philosophies owing mostly to his reputation as an action-movie star, but with the guidance of director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) he nails the despair of a self-destructive man who gives absolutely no fucks. Ultimately, that’s what makes The Gambler work: You believe that Bennett truly is a man that would rather fling himself from a bridge than settle for contentedness. It’s only after he digs himself so deep, and after he moves the bar so low, that contentedness actually begins to feel like an aspiration.