Mark Wahlberg John Goodman Jessica Lange
The Gambler is a slick production done with flair about the seamier side of the “sport”, but making a point about how to master it. Mark Wahlberg is cast as Jim Bennett a smart, glib-talking professor from a wealthy family, who outwardly has everything. But his cynicism about himself and the world is just about to do him in. His class in English literature keeps shrinking and he has a bad gambling habit, which necessitates subjugating himself to his mother (Jessica Lange), which galls him further. Moreover, he is under the delusion that anything short of perfection is not worth his time, so his losses just keep racking up.
Eventually, his life is in danger as he becomes beholden to three men who have staked him thousands of dollars of gambling money: the Chinese owner of the gambling establishment (Alvin Ing), a notorious crook (Michael K. Williams), and a lender, Frank (John Goodman). When the crook requires him to do more than just pay back the money, it gives Bennett an idea about how he can extricate himself from the bind. But will it work? Even if he can talk Frank into lending him a large sum, everything has to be coordinated to a tee, and he will need a certain amount of luck.
The story is well told, and is painfully nerve-wracking to this non-gambler, but the music by Jon Brion and Theo Grier, exquisitely devised to enhance the mood, provides some levity from the tension. Wahlberg, Williams, and Goodman give peak performances in strikingly different styles. Wahlberg plays a very bright but ineffective intellectual who doesn’t know what to do with his intellect. Willliams, who played a key role in Boardwalk Empire on television is smooth as a savvy crook. And Goodman—who always brings his own distinct character to a role—takes a harsh fatherly stance, which may turn out to be Bennett’s salvation.
Both Jessica Lange and Brie Larson (who plays one of Bennett’s students) are very good, but their roles were not fleshed out enough for them to really shine. Lange’s character must do some extremely heavy acting, but it’s so brief it doesn’t have much impact. Larson’s character as a student who has been complimented by her professor and then actively tries to seduce him holds little plausibility, and the end result just is not convincing. I think the film would have been much better if these two characters’ roles had more screen time so that their interactions with Bennett—if well written—would make more sense.
Another weakness is the dialog in Bennett’s classes. He speaks so rapidly, I doubt most of the audience would be able to follow it, which is a shame since it is supposed to illuminate his character and his thinking. I, for one, would have liked to have a bit more time to process his remarks.
High tension stakes with fine actors.
By Donna R. Copeland