The Gambler is an incredible, emotionally transformative experience… for me, personally. It is difficult to say how anyone else will react.
The title character, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), is entropy incarnate. He enters the film already several thousand dollars in debt to Lee (Alvin Ing), who has been sponsoring his nasty gambling habit. Bennett is a lean, mean bad decision machine, going down another $60,000 and adding another dangerous collector, Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), in the film’s opening sequence after Lee had given him a seven day ultimatum to settle. A failed novelist turned college literature teacher, Bennett also fosters inappropriate relationships with several of his students.
The Gambler is the most cathartic portrayal of depression I’ve ever seen. Bennett isn’t addicted to anything — he’s severely depressed, cutting himself with blackjack cards instead of a razor. His defining characteristic is his refusal to live a life he’s unhappy with. He hates teaching, he resents his family and he’s actively trying to bring himself to ruin.
His gambling is clearly impulsive, and every dealer he works with warns him not to bet as much as he is at one point, to which he points out the inherent predatory nature of gambling establishments and gets them to keep dealing. These are either gripping, disheartening scenes of self-harm or some idiot getting what’s coming to him.
I care about Bennett because he’s basically me. Other, healthier viewers may not. Rotten Tomatoes tells us this unlikeable lead character bums many critics out, leading them to dismiss the movie when they get tired of his shit. Unironically, this is how many people deal with real-life depression. It’s not fun.
For this reason alone I want to call The Gambler a must-see, but truth be told it’s only above-average. Still the best wide release in the Christmas rush, though.
Scenes are oddly paced. The first two, introducing Bennett’s play and his work, are very, very long but well worth the investment. Once the film really gets going, it’s a sneaky kind of fast. The soundtrack is amazing. Direction (Rupert Wyatt) is adequate, but the writing (William Monahan) is powerful — again, for me.
Somewhat off-puttingly, this seems unintentional. The movie is a loose remake of the 1974 kind-of classic starring James Caan, though the script was rewritten from scratch and it bears only superficial similarities. Also, the elder film portrays true addiction, instead of depression expressed as addiction. The film also gives Bennett a clear way out of his unhappiness, and Wahlberg has talked about the character as someone with clear, reachable goals, which seems contrary to his other depression symptoms. Lastly, advertisements tease a dramatic rush by Bennett to pay his debts back and heavily tease John Goodman and Brie Larson, even though they are in bit roles. These things in concert indicate that the movie’s genuine depiction of depression is completely accidental.
The best part of the film is the acting. Wahlberg has always been a bizarrely talented actor, and this may be one of his best performances, for screen time if no other reason. Michael K. Williams is in this movie. John Goodman is in this movie.
The most talented actor by far is Larson, which is sad because she’s playing a sexy lamp. This woman will have us forget Meryl Streep in 20-30 years, but she’s completely wasted here.
I don’t like the ending. The Gambler is not a cautionary tale about its protagonist’s vices. His is portrayed as a noble struggle to hit Tyler Durden’s fabled “bottom” because that is what he thinks will bring him validation. It’s unclear what moral the movie is going for, or whether or not it’s a good one.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I detest the fact that two and two make four and reserve my sacred right to insist two and two make five. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.