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Mark Wahlberg's Performance Comes Up Snake Eyes in the Remake of 'The Gambler'

Mark Wahlberg's performance in this thrice-removed Dostoyevsky adaptation is all surface moves, dance steps without the music.


The Gambler

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: R
Year: 2015
US DVD release date: 2015-04-28

The house will grant Mark Wahlberg a line of credit for his effort. For his role as a risk-addicted college professor in the new version of The Gambler, he lost 60-some pounds, shedding away the bulky muscle and granite washboard of the recent Pain and Gain for the lean, hungry look of an academic wasting away in the pit of his own apathy.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), The Gambler gives us Wahlberg as Jim Bennett, a once-successful writer who leveraged his talent into a university post, where he teaches writing to clueless underclassmen and athletes desperate for a passing grade, a job he loathes only slightly less than his own wasted self. He finds his only escape from the undertow of his meaningless life in the electricity of high-stakes gambling, in secret clubs run by quietly malevolent men like Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing).

Not surprisingly, Bennett owes Mr. Lee a considerable sum, and a less considerable length of time in which to pay it back. The film then becomes a seven-day, title-card countdown, as Bennett tunnels and twists to negotiate his survival, falling afoul of his bitter mother (Jessica Lange), a talented student (Brie Larson) who may be his ticket back to hope, and not one, but two, even more malevolent money men (John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams).

Can Bennett dig out from under? Will he figure out what he should be doing with his life? Is it humorously ironic to watch Mark Wahlberg lecture a college class on the nature of talent?

It wouldn’t be fair to answer the first two, but the last is, sadly, a resounding yes. The screenplay of The Gambler leans heavily on James Toback’s script of the original film from 1974, which in turn drew on Dostoevsky’s story of the same name. What this results in Russian existentialism double-filtered through Hollywood’s brand of '70s intellectual machismo and slick HD millennial characterization.

Wyatt keeps things moving at a decent clip, never spending too long in one place, never testing the audience’s patience. There’s a well-edited sequence involving Bennett’s star basketball-playing student, who may or may not have agreed to help Bennett out by keeping a game within the point spread. He has a distinct feel for camera movement, and for the dark underspaces that we all like to imagine are populated by people with gambling problems.

The players at the fringes are solid and muscular, threatening Bennett’s physical well-being with more than the usual efficiency and understated menace. As Bennett’s tart, leathery mother, Lange sinks her teeth into a pair of scenes heaving with Oedipal lather and malice. Williams and Ing make credible heavies, and Goodman, in particular, seems to be having a grand time playing an occasionally-topless variation on the standard loan shark with especially sharp teeth. Watching him take a shirtless sauna bath and threaten Wahlberg at the same time is a joy not to be missed.

But like the doughnut with extra sprinkles, this stellar character work really just surrounds and foregrounds the Wahlberg-shaped hole at the center of The Gambler. He’s not guilty of overacting, or missing his marks, or even of not trying hard enough. He does find a few nice notes of self-loathing in Bennett’s fisticuffs with his own worst impulses. But on the whole, it’s just impossible to take him seriously here, despite the obvious acting-class contortions of someone who so clearly wants to be taken seriously. It’s all surface moves, dance steps without the music.

When Wahlberg suddenly, athletically jumps up on to a tabletop to deliver part of that lecture on talent, it felt more like a display of his blue-collar showmanship and his need for physical movement than anything rooted in character. It’s Wahlberg looking to impress in the way he knows works best for him, maybe the only way he knows how.

5

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