“The Gambler ” begins with heavy breathing on a dark screen, the presumed focused yet anxious gasps of a gambler with everything on the line. Instead the camera opens to an elderly man on his death bed. It’s Jim Bennett’s (Mark Wahlberg) grandfather, whose ghost the protagonist gambles for and against during the rest of the film.
Based on James Tabock’s 1974 film, “The Gambler,” the 2014 movie left me wishing it’d been adapted into a book instead. Though the music narrated the film, strapping the viewer into the front seat for scenic drives up PCH (exiting at Porto Marina Way, a road I’ve driven past but never ventured up) or through Los Angeles, with songs like “That Glow” by St. Paul and the Broken Bones ending abruptly as Bennett cut the ignition, the scattered whooping in intense scenes and the rest of the sound mixing worked against tension of the film.
“The Gambler” draws on literature, engaging the viewer in novelist and literature professor Bennett’s academic discussions about “Hamlet” and Roman Emperor Vespasian’s last words: “Dear me, I think I am becoming a God.” These scenes are powerful. They boast enough footage of USC to make any Trojan proud and detail the only strong relationships of the film, those between Bennett and his students: love interest Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) as well as athletes, college basketball star Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) and tennis player Dexter (Emory Cohen), who Bennett engages in his high-stakes bets. They spark conversations about genius, the gamble of betting on one’s own creativity and talent, and perception versus reality.
But other scenes would’ve been better in a book. One in particular, in which Wahlberg expounds on the impossible versus the real and the meaning of life, is charged but falls flat on the screen. Unlike Amy, who launches herself on top of Bennett after his 30 seconds of dialogue, the short scene doesn’t leave the viewer enraptured with Bennett, but rather waiting the expansion of the internal and external dialogue one would imagine present in a book as focused on writing as the movie “The Gambler.”
Though Larson is girl-next-door seductive as the doe-eyed student hoping to harness her own and fall in love with a “genius,” the rest of the acting performances create caricatures rather than characters.
Wahlberg said that as the son of a gambler, he wanted the movie made to show the gambler’s lack of control and the submission to addiction to which gamblers subject themselves, their families, and their friends. The film aims to do this, but fails to link some of the narrative details, distracting from the high stakes present in the movie.
Though it wasn’t the best film, it does provide quite the reading list as well as a dialogue on good and evil, perception versus reality, and magic versus material. If for nothing more than a cinematic and scenic road trip through Los Angeles and the thrill ride of gambling, add “The Gambler” to your “What to Watch” list.
For more What to Watch, check out these posts: