A literature college professor and high stakes gambler runs afoul of a loan shark and his bodyguard-like gangsters while he has an affair with one of his students.
Year 3, Film #44
THE GOOD: Rupert Wyatt, the director of this film, appeared for a Q&A after the screening and one of the most insightful pieces he talked about is how The Gambler is not a film about addiction. Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) plays an English professor/author as his day job, and a “gambler” at night. But as Bennett points out multiple times in the film, “I’m not a gambler.”
It’s hard to watch this film and not think that is what’s going on. There’s blackjack, roulette — all high stakes and all with some pretty nasty mob figures running the place. You watch Bennett win a lot of money by going all-in for every round he plays. How can he not be a gambler with an addiction if that’s all he does?
Where Wyatt succeeds is navigating this difference between gambling and just making a series of choices in life. There’s a very fine line between the two and it slowly progresses throughout the film. Characters like Amy (Brie Larson) and his mother (Jessica Lange) give him a base that grounds him, but also gives him a place to venture out from. Then you have Neville (Michael K. Williams) who’s encouraging Bennett’s reckless behavior and Frank (John Goodman — who truly steals this film, every scene with him is flawless) who also eggs him on but also providing caution and trying to serve as a kind of father figure.
The result is a film that’s entertaining for what seems like the obvious reason: gambling, high-stakes risks, and mob activity to provide a lot of action and drama. And while this carries you throughout much of the film, there’s also a more subtle message running throughout that is even more powerful but harder to grasp. Jim Bennett is not a gambler, he uses gambling as a means of escape and a way of trying to attain the unattainable.
THE BAD: I’m not criticizing The Gambler for hiding that point so much that it took the director to explain it for me to understand. While this lack of clarity does distract you a bit from the film, you can still come out of it (as I did) still highly entertained with what you watched.
My criticism of the film is that it didn’t take many (or any) risks; it was a very blasé film. There really isn’t a lot here to “wow” you. Pick a name out of a hat of any other gambling, casino, or redemption film (Wyatt saw this as a redemption story for Bennett) and chances are it’ll probably be more exciting and fun to watch. In a couple years when I’m looking at a list of films I can watch on a day off, The Gambler won’t be the one I pick. It was fun to watch and I enjoyed seeing it, but there’s not a lot here that makes you want to see it to begin with.
THE TAKEAWAY: Rupert Wyatt, who also directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes and a film called The Escapist (which I haven’t seen but am very eager to), tries something a bit different with The Gambler. Parts of it he succeeds at. He does a great job at telling a story with an obvious message (gambling and addiction) and a less obvious message (why someone chooses to do something). While this wouldn’t be high on a list of my recommendations of films to see, if you do happen to watch it, there is a lot to like. Any scene with John Goodman being just one small part.
The Gambler opens in limited release on December 19, 2014 and expands on January 1, 2015.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5