The Gambler, James Caan playing a literature professor with an extreme gambling problem. Well, it's 40-plus years later so let's revamp things! Here we are with 2014's The Gambler.
Walking into an oceanfront underground casino, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is carrying a suitcase packed with $10,000. He promptly goes up thousands and thousands of dollars...and then promptly loses it in one bet at the roulette wheel. That's just the start of his problems. A literature professor and respected writer, Bennett is in serious debt. Like $260,000 debt, and that money is coming due very quickly. He only has seven days to come up with the money or else, well, it's not going to end well for him. So already in ridiculous amounts of debt, Bennett borrows more money -- some $50,000 -- from a brutal loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) with a similarly fast approaching payment date. The clock is ticking. Can Bennett get his hands on all that money? Will his severe, obsessive gambling addiction even allow the possibility of getting out clean?
So my usual stance on remakes is pretty simple. There needs to be a reason for that remake to be made. Was the original really bad? Was there a ton of wasted potential? That's pretty much it. For the most part, if a movie was good, great or a classic, it doesn't need to be remade. This remake from director Rupert Wyatt is an interesting mix of the above reasons. The Caan version is pretty good (I gave it three stars), but it isn't a hugely well-known flick. Good but not great so where do we sit in the remake department? I, for one, liked this new flick a lot, flaws and all.
I'll say this going in. Not that any movie about gambling addiction is going to be real pleasant, but this is one dark, brooding flick. It starts with Wahlberg's lead performance as Jim Bennett. I was curious how the performance would go, and I came away impressed. Wahlberg is a blue-collar kind of actor, typically playing tough guys, cops, boxers, armed forces, that sort of thing. How about a well-read, intelligent English literature professor? Not exactly a role you'd associate with Wahlberg, but I thought he did an excellent job as Professor Bennett. This is one sad sack of a character, beaten down by the world even though it appears he's been given no real reason to be so downbeat. Maybe the best compliment is that Wahlberg isn't just being a tough guy. He gets to show off his acting chops and doesn't disappoint. Big shoes to fill playing a part James Caan played, but Wahlberg is excellent.
As for the movie itself, I similarly liked it a lot. It's a remake, but thankfully not a scene for scene remake. With a script from William Monahan (The Departed, London Boulevard) that uses the original screenplay as a jumping off point, the new 'Gambler' has some similarities but tries to carve out a niche for itself. It works. The story is different. Wyatt does a good job stylizing the story without going overboard. Title cards count down the days to Bennett's payment deadline. The soundtrack features a good mix of the score from Jon Brion and Theo Green with an eclectic mix of actual sounds with everyone from M83 to a Radiohead cover to Cole Porter and a lot in between. It isn't a flashy visual movie, but you look back and think it's definitely a visually interesting movie.
Much like the 1974 version, the 2014 remake features a strong ensemble cast. The best part goes to John Goodman as Frank, a physically massive, intimidating bear of a loan shark. His scenes with Wahlberg's Bennett are the highlights, Frank giving a great speech about the power of money in everyone's life. Kenneth Williams is similarly very good (read = intimidating and frightening) with Alvin Ing rounding out all the possible loan sharks. Brie Larson plays Amy, one of Bennett's students who has a natural feeling for writing, an excellent supporting part. Oh, and Jessica Lange is very strong as Roberta, Jim's mother who's at the end of her string with her gambling addicted son. Also look for Andre Braugher, Domenick Lombardozzi, George Kennedy, Richard Schiff and Emory Cohen in some other key supporting parts.
Watching a man struggle through the depths of his gambling addiction, it's a frightening, fascinating picture. The gambling scenes are intense and uncomfortable as they're intended to be. We see the highs and lows, the ups and downs with a man who is up enough to pay off his debts only to see him continue to bet as he feels that winning high. That crazy adrenaline rush. There are flaws, and I thought the ending tapped the brakes far too much. There was a natural ending about three minutes earlier that would have been perfect in the open-ended finale department. As is, it's a finale that is a little too tidy. You know what though? I really liked this remake throughout. Well worth checking out.
The Gambler (2014): ***/****