'The Gambler' remake lacks the original’s depth and darkness

Dec 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

The Gambler | C+

God bless John Goodman. The man is a force of nature. In a film filled with decent to very good actors (some wasted in their roles) Goodman muscles his way onto the screen and creates a character that's funny, scary, and, yes, unabashedly cartoonish. He's the only one who seems to understand (consciously or instinctually) the folly of a 2014 Hollywood studio remake of an edgy 1970s character drama.

The original, The Gambler from 1974 , was the screenwriting debut of James Toback. It was a jazzy, self-reflective study of an Ivy League academic (James Caan) giving in to his gambling addiction and alienating just about everyone in his life as he struggled to dodge the bookies and hoods who wanted their money. It was the equivalent of watching a man willingly drown himself, tossing away every life preserver sent his way.

Rupert Wyatt's remake pretty much follows the same formula. Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett, a well-regarded first-time novelist who decided he was mediocre, took a job at an unnamed L.A. university, and took up a nasty gambling habit. He comes from serious money — his stylish house and BMW come courtesy of his banking magnate grandpa (George Kennedy), who dies in the opening scene. Gramps leaves Jim nothing, while mom (Jessica Lange) manages the family fortune. Needless to say, she and Jim don't really get along.

In fact, the Korean mobsters Jim owes more than $200k to seem to like his company better than Mumsy. But they're getting tired of his welshing. So Jim takes on even more debt from loan shark Neville (the charismatic Michael K. Williams) and, when things really take a turn for the worse, Frank (Goodman), a man you clearly do not want to fuck with. As Jim digs himself into a deeper and deeper pit, the only person who sees him as a good bet is Amy (Brie Larson), the gifted student in his class.

Putting aside the fact that Hollywood is once again giving us a misanthropic fortysomething shacking up with a fresh-faced twentysomething, and that it fails to see the problem with a teacher banging his student, this remake feels flawed in conception. No longer a downward spiral from New York to the all-pervasive gambling culture of Las Vegas, writer William Monahan (The Departed) has moved the action to Los Angeles. This allows Jim constant respite from the backroom gambling dens that drain his wallet (and life force). As a result, his dilemmas feel like ill-advised day trips rather than a total immersion into self-destruction.

Similarly, Bennett's character is off. Wahlberg acts hard. You can tell that he's enjoying the opportunity to play someone with whip-smart intellect and biting cynicism. But he takes a motormouth approach to his dilemma, substituting speed for emotion. And he never finds the sly, existential self-loathing James Caan so perfectly captured in the original.

The Gambler keeps you engaged and entertained every step of the way but, let's be serious, for all Bennett's self-flagellating, we never really understand his suicidal petulance. He's an ennui-soaked brat. Wyatt (who directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes) expertly turns the screws and ratchets up the tension with his slick and energetic direction but, really, in the end, it's hard to get invested in a guy who had the world handed to him on a plate but seems incapable of appreciating it.

Yeah, there are vague thematic shadings of the need for rebirth and a situation with a star athlete in his class sorta kinda acts as a test of his character, but the simple fact is that Wyatt and Monahan's The Gambler doesn't have the balls to go anywhere truly unpleasant or revealing. And that ending. Oy! Why remake an abrasive portrait of auto-annihilation if all you're going to do is cop out and wrap everything up neatly in a bow?

The Gambler's soundtrack supplies the answer. Listen closely and you'll hear uninspired cover versions of Pink Floyd's "Money" and Radiohead's "Creep." For anyone who's seen the 1974 film, they're the perfect metaphor — a stylish remake that's rounded off the edges and softens the impact, inspiring you to ask: "Why bother?" — mt

The Gambler is rated R and has a running time of 111 minutes.