Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 25, 2014 9:48 pm 
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Wahlberg cool and self-destructive in a remake drained of detail

The biggest surprise in this remake of James Toback's first produced screenplay, Gambler, comes after Mark Wahlberg, who's been winning and losing a large stack of cash at a shady Asian gambling den, turns up in the same slick dark suit -- in a lecture hall. It's the big, banked, theatrical kind movies understandably like to use. And here's the surprise: he's the teacher. And he's most fluently delivering a spiel that starts with a put-down of the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. That, he says, just appeals to people who lack the gumption to believe in genius. "Who would write Hamlet and not put his name to it?" he asks. From this Jim Bennett -- that's his name -- quickly segues to a denunciation of nearly everyone in the room, including himself, for being mediocre, except for three students. They turn out to be the only ones who know his secret. That he's a borderline suicidal nihilist, anyone might guess. But they don't know about his gambling addiction. Except for Amy (Brie Larson), a poor girl who works in the Asian den, who he says is a truly gifted writer; Dexter (Emory Cohen), a very good tennis player; and Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), a top tier basketball player.

It's not quite as much of a surprise, perhaps, that Wahlberg, who usually plays working class tough guys, is the trust fund son of Jessica Lange. Lange makes it work; she carries off her brief role with great panache. Other nice performances are delivered by John Goodman, as a dangerous loan shark who somehow is both menacing and avuncular; and Michael Kenneth Williams as a dashing grifter Bennett borrows from on the way to the loan shark, and then has to help fix a game.

At some point it becomes clear, without anybody saying so, that this gambler isn't in it for the perks of high stakes play but only for the adrenalin and the risk. Wahlberg usually muscles his way around on screen, but this time he just takes punches. He has a nice car and a nice watch, but they mean nothing to him.

Bennett now owes the Asian gambling boss (Alvin Ing) $260,000, and he gets his mother to draw it out of her bank account for him, in cash: she's pleasingly imperious with the hapless bank clerk. He then takes it and gambles it away. This is what he does. He borrows money to pay off gambling debts, and then can't resist gambling with it. A high stakes gambling addict has a curious kind of tarnished glamour about him. Wahlberg, with his youthful bearing and wavy hair, his cheekbones, his nice muscles, and, it turns out, his expressive eyes, notably pared down in weight, is good in this role, even though sometimes it feels like he's reciting his lines, however fluently. He's more relaxed than usual in this role, even as he bites into it with a vengeance.

The minor roles are well played here, notably by Lange and Goodman and by Anthony Kelley, a real basketball player with the physicality and the moves you can't fake. But the movie belongs to Wahlberg. The basic elements of this new version of the original Toback-scripted film, which starred James Caan and was directed in 1974 by English New Wave director Karel Reisz, are essentially the same. You've got the English teacher with the gambling addiction (based on Toback's own life), the smart girl he's drawn to, the basketball player he induces to cheat. But William Monahan (who scripted The Departed) has pared down the protagonist so he's purer, but harder to care about. Wyatt's movie is a suave piece of work, but it feels a bit like a neo-noirish exercise that delivers its Dostoyevsky neat. Dostoyevsky's The Gambler, itself autobiographical, is the parent tale to which Toback linked his own, and this version seems to contain few of the trappings of ordinary life.

The Gambler, 111 mins., debuted at AFI Fest 10 November 2014 and opened in the US 25 December UK, 23rd January 2015. Justin Chang explains very well in his review for Variety why this version doesn't measure up to the original Seventies one starring James Caan.

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