The Flipside #8: 'The Gambler' (2014)
An overlooked 2014 remake of a James Caan classic asks a daring cinematic question: can Mark Wahlberg convincingly play a tenured English professor?
The GamblerDirector: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Jessica Lange, George Kennedy
Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Release Date: 2014-12-25
Ezell: Based on its trailer alone, The Gambler should have only one destiny: becoming That Movie You Find Playing on TNT One Day. You know the kind of movie. It's usually an action flick or a thriller of some sort, with enough familiar faces to let you know that it's a cut above the garden variety procedurals that make up the cable channel bloc. That Movie You Find Playing on TNT One Day requires very little of the viewer; it's precisely when you have nothing going on -- maybe you're even bored out of your mind -- that this kind of movie shows up. You can start at pretty much any point in the movie and get the same amount out of it as if you had started at the beginning. Neither great nor terrible, That Movie You Find Playing on TNT one Day represents the kind of utilitarian entertainment that makes lazy days on the couch so gratifying, if not superlative.
As directed by Rupert Wyatt, however, The Gambler rises above the tropes of That Movie You Find Playing on TNT One Day. Wyatt avoids shooting this thing conventionally and even achieves some beautiful noirish shots. The script, by The Departed screenwriter William Monahan, features numerous extended breaks for the film's talented cast of actors to luxuriate in some George V. Higgins-esque dialogue. Where a more box office-minded director would choose to emphasize the thrill of the chase as the eponymous gambler Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) tries to outrun his creditors, Wyatt and Monahan approach this story, adapted from the 1974 James Caan picture of the same name, as a kind of existential exercise. Paramount made a bold call in putting this thing out on Christmas Day 2014: undoubtedly, many went into this thing expecting an action movie only to discover themselves wallowing alongside Marky Mark as he looks for a reason to live. All superficial indicators communicate that The Gambler is at best a genre picture, and at worst a self-serious gritty reboot of a movie that most contemporary audiences probably don't even remember.
To be sure, The Gambler will find itself playing on TNT one of these days. The movie barely made back its budget, so licensing and residual money must be on the minds of those behind the making of it. But anyone who keeps their brain on when watching The Gambler -- no matter how distracting its cable-friendly profanity edits will be -- will find a surprisingly thoughtful movie, one based on risky artistic choices that elevate it above its straightforward plot. I doubt The Gambler will end up on any Best of the '10s lists, nor should it. But I admire this film for how it avoids taking the easy route when just about everything about the scenario of this movie enables simple artistic choices.
Truly, though, what drew me to The Gambler initially was Wahlberg himself -- although the bonafides of Monahan, whose Departed script is an all-time favorite of mine, also helped. I'm no devotee of Wahlberg, but I was intrigued, if not outright horrified, at the prospect of him playing the kind of character he does in this movie: namely, an English professor.
That's right folks: in The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg plays a professor of English literature. With tenure. Who at one point gives a lecture, if one may call it that, on Shakespeare. By those lights, The Gambler should be a comedy, and yet it isn't. So, Evan, I'm curious both about your initial response to the film and to any interest you have in signing up for English 101 with Professor Marky Mark.
Sawdey: Well, having received such divine and insightful wisdom offered from him in the form of an English professor who ends every sentence like it's a question in M. Night Shyamalan's 2008 disasterpiece The Happening, I think I'll audit that class at most, but more than likely play hooky even from that.
First off, I can tell you picked this just out of revenge for me making you listen to Taylor Swift two weeks ago. But more seriously, are you really that surprised as to why this got a Christmas release? This was an awards-season baby, the kind where Academy Award-nominee Mark Wahlberg and Academy Award-winner William Monahan and Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Wyatt could all work in harmony to generate Oscar gold, gong-season attention that would carry the box office receipts through the winter, and eventually wind up with a decent profit on hand. Jim "James" Bennett as a generational spokesman? Clearly not what they were aiming for. A Wahlberg passion project they might make a dime (or Oscar) or two off of? In this case, the studio went all in.
See what I did there? With the poker punnery? This is honestly not too far removed from some of the conceits that Monahan dreams up in this film which, when you remove its layers of style and wordplay from, ends up being a remarkably stagnant and tired plot trope. He owes money, so gambles money, but is only half-good as a gambler, so gets in with one shark, but not another, but he also needs to help an athletic kid with a short attention span succeed while also encouraging him to shave points off a game so ... goodness, I'm exhausted already.
There's a difference between creating an engaging anti-hero and one who simply wears their flaws on their sleeve. The former is someone who you find yourself rooting for even as they do morally reprehensible things. The latter is just lazy writing, and although the speeches that Monahan gives every character is truly worth some time examining, I left this movie never once caring about this English lit, risk-addicted, all-or-nothing jackass who resides at its core. It's a movie where the writer shows off, and sometimes shows off very well, but at the end of the day, the only person comes out aces is the perennially-undervalued John Goodman, taking a short role a long way and living every word he speaks. Yes, Brie Larson and Jessica Lange show up (and then, mostly, disappear), but all in all, it's the Mark Wahlberg show, and there is only so much of it we can take.
What, pray tell, is your Wahlberg breaking point, Brice, and did this movie pass it?
Ezell: My breaking point came any time Wahlberg was on screen pretending to be an English professor. Admittedly, my sensitivity to Walhberg's portrayal of a professor has a lot to do with the fact that I'm training for that very job as a graduate student, and working at a large university similar to the one presented in The Gambler I can say with confidence that no professor, tenured or not, could get away with the stuff that Wahlberg does in this movie. Sure, Bennett is a nihilist in every facet of his life, but Monahan here leans on the trope of the eccentric professor, a type that only exists in the movies. As much as people love Dead Poets Society, you'd be hard-pressed to find an instructor like Robin Williams' beloved "My Captain", whose pedagogy ranks dubious at best. Bennett lands on the opposite end of the spectrum: instead of going for the saccharine self-empowerment of Dead Poets Society, he berates his students and tells them that most of them will amount to nothing -- all the while leaving time to unsubtly flirt with Amy Phillips (Larson), a bespectacled, sheepish student near the front of the class. (You are right to say Larson is underutilized; her role, though not she herself, is the weakest part of the story.) For Bennett, tenure grants the license to be an asshole. Professors with this level of arrogance undoubtedly exist, but it seems unlikely that they would be as performatively misanthropic as Bennett. It's a great contradiction of this movie that Bennett shows little care for his students yet manages to memorize several of their names, no small feat given the giant lecture hall in which he teaches.
I could go on for far too long about this movie's idea of what being an English professor is like. Bennett's first lecture is on Shakespeare, but then he leaps to Camus. He somehow maintains his post despite having only published a novel, which many if not most institutions won't even recognize for tenure and promotion. His relationship with Amy, ethics-violating though it is, is sadly a common phenomenon at universities -- in the end, Bennett becomes a morose Hugo Schwyzer figure. But The Gambler isn't a movie about the profession of literary studies, or about life at a university. Had the movie wanted to go for that kind of topicality, they'd have made Bennett a desperate adjunct, rather than a comfortably tenured associate professor. But out of all of The Gambler's many oddities, its depiction of academic life -- and the decision by the filmmakers to present Wahlberg as a professor -- leaps to the top of my list.
I don't remember The Gambler being marketed as Oscar bait, and seeing it now I find it odd that anybody would seriously consider it for that kind of campaign. The film has some of the markers of the Oscar picture, most notably a cast of A-list actors that frequently resort to scenery-chewing (specifically, Lange and Goodman) and a portentous, self-serious mood. After some of the weightiest lines of Monahan's script are delivered, one can easily imagine the camera cutting to an image of Wahlberg, Lange, or Goodman sitting in the Dolby Theatre audience, smiling with requisite obligation. But the movie still feels like a genre picture, albeit one that's doing its damndest to avoid the play-by-numbers approach. Unlike The Departed, Monahan's sole Oscar win, which aspired to the heights of tragedy, The Gambler contently remains a dressed-up crime film which trades in trope for character study. The feeling I get from the crop of biopics and issue movies that start raining down on cinemas every October doesn't stir in me when I watch The Gambler. We may be slightly afield of That Movie You Find Playing on TNT One Day, but we aren't far from it.
You identify some key flaws in the movie, though I disagree with your dismissal of Lange's performance. Watching her in this, I'm reminded of why she's played Mary Tyrone more than once: she's fantastic at playing the tormented, emotionally volatile matriarch. Even though she doesn't show up in much of The Gambler's last half, I don't think she disappears entirely. Larson, though, absolutely does, and though I can see why Wahlberg's character is drawn to her, I can't understand what Larson's character sees in Bennett. (The A.V. Club's A.A. Dowd described Larson's role as "basically the inverse of a certain tiresome archetype -- let's call her the stable brainy dream girl", which hits it right on the nose.) You also aren't wrong about Wahlberg's character: there's no reason to like the guy and plenty of reasons to dislike him. Throughout the film multiple characters psychoanalyze him with little difficulty: he's undeservedly glum, considering the level of privilege he enjoys; he hates himself, but through the complex tangle of gambling debts he accrues, he seeks to have others inflict punishment on him instead of taking his deserved flagellation into his own hands. I enjoy The Gambler, but not because I identify, let alone sympathize, with Bennett.
But to the credit of Wahlberg's performance and Monahan's script I say this: The Gambler, properly understood, is not a narrative of redemption, nor is it a film with an anti-hero with which one should sympathize. It's a character study about the limits of self-destruction: when one accepts futility as a norm, at what point does he finally cross the threshold into oblivion? Bennett's behavior can easily be diagnosed as addictive and compulsive. He's caught up in the rush of the turn of the cards and doesn't know when to stop. That diagnosis isn't wrong, but it provides a superficial gloss of a more profound turmoil that stirs beneath Bennett's surface: he has resigned himself to the belief that all is for naught, yet like anyone circling the drain he doesn't know when things will finally reach (what he understands to be) their predetermined, bleak end.
But I'll stop myself here before I fall into the trap of misinterpreting Nietzsche. Am I giving The Gambler too much credit here? Was there a better way to write Bennett's gambling?
Sawdey: Honestly, there was a better way to write Bennett, full-stop. As Odie Henderson stated at the top of his review of this film at RogerEbert.com, The Gambler "should have been called 'Three Supporting Characters in Search of a Lead.'" I can't disagree with that statement, as Bennett exists in a total vacuum. You never understand why he's such a gifted gambler ('cos, well, he's not), and more to the point, since he's vaguely suicidal and has nothing to live for really, the multiple threats upon his life add up to moot. As deep and as showy as Monahan gets with his monologues, there are surprisingly little stakes to be had here, given the movie revolves entirely around the concept of high-stakes.
Yet as utterly pretentious as Bennett's classroom monologues were, there was something unique in the approach here, despite this distinctive writing being undercut at every turn. The idea that you're either destined for greatness or a job as an electrician? OK, that's different. That's compelling. Asymmetrical to reality in its own way, but I'll buy it. When you break it down, it's actually no different than Ricky Bobby's philosophy of "If you're not first ... you're last," but I digress. The scene where his mom basically buys him off, and he shows no emotion -- yes, it's a clever inversion of so many tropes, but we're still left cold and distant at the end. "Oh, Bennett is an asshole," we're left saying, and the movie continues to prove us right in that aspect time and time again, borrowing money from people he already owes money too, losing it again, and (spoiler alert), betting it all on one final gamble at a roulette wheel that proves correct. It's not a skill he possesses or even fate that falls his way: it's dumb luck, once again, that rescues him. At least with the poker scenes in the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, it felt like every character at the table, every action, had purpose and intent. With this movie, I'm left yawning.
So as sleek as the cinematography is and as stylish as it's made, I'm still left with one lingering question over The Gambler (outside of your well-known TNT daytime movies fetish, Brice): "Why?" Why am I supposed to care about Bennett? Why did this movie even need to be remade? It's not the worst thing that's ever hit my eyeballs by any means, but sometimes I prefer an outright-bad movie to one that I've mostly forgotten an hour after seeing it. "I could stand here, stark naked, and I could yell as loud as I want," Bennett yells to his students, "and nobody would care." Only in that last four words does he circle anything even resembling the movie's truth. To quote Henderson one more time: "When various minions finally do pummel Bennett for his sins, I thought 'Eh, he'll be all right.' And he was. Where's the drama in that?"
Ezell: The drama, in my reading, is located precisely where you see it missing. By the standards of traditional Hollywood storytelling, where we're supposed to identify with the protagonist and want his or her ultimate success, The Gambler fails. Never once did I like Bennett. Even when he was winning at the blackjack tables, it was out of sheer luck. However much he would impress with one hand, he'd undo any perception of skill in his playing by going all in instead of walking away with the money he just haphazardly tripled. But the movie ultimately doesn't ask us to sympathize with Bennett in this way. The Gambler asks this question: "At what point does one finally cross the threshold of self-destruction?"
Bennett is clearly suicidal. No one would behave like he does if they wanted anything like a life. He accrues gambling debts with abandon, sourced from the smoothest-talking tough guys in Los Angeles (Goodman and an equally gruff Michael K. Williams). He shuns his mother who, for all her iciness, genuinely loves her son. By most reaches of the imagination, Bennett should be dead or disappeared well before The Gambler reaches the conclusion of its 111-minute runtime. Why doesn't he?
Love, as always, is an option. Had she been better written, Larson's character could have been a legitimate motivation for Bennett; as presented on screen, she's merely a plot device. The thrill of placing a bet? To me, this is the strongest candidate. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Bennett immediately pisses away a quarter of a million dollars given to him by his mother at a casino. With M83 playing in the background, the camera angles up at Bennett as he overlooks a blackjack table after winning a big hand -- a brief moment of triumph, maybe even transcendence. The music continues playing, but Bennett's confidence sours immediately. The camera moves away from him, viewing his inevitable decline at the table from afar. The Gambler doesn't vindicate Bennett's addiction, but it does depict how easy it is for one to get sucked up into the very thing that's destroying him. That's the compelling part of The Gambler's narrative: Bennett should be destroyed, but he isn't.
Am I making any sense here? While I'm asking questions, could you perhaps entertain my pet theory about this film, in which I maintain that it takes place in the same universe as The Departed, and Wahlberg's character here is the alias of his foul-mouthed Staff Sergeant in Scorsese's film, who was forced to change his identity after killing Matt Damon the crooked cop?
Sawdey: I mean the Wahlberg cinematic universe (WCU) is extensive, but does this also count his cameo appearance in the Monahan written/directed 2015 film Mojave starring Oscar Isaac that no one saw?
I jest (it doesn't count for the WCU), but personally I never got that sense of euphoria, especially when that same M83 queue gets played no less than three times over the course of this film, which at a shade under two hours, still manages to feel long. Again, self-destructive as he is, there still feels like such utterly small stakes in the whole affair, and Larson, try as she may, just can't anchor a motivation out of him.
Honestly, this film would've worked better had Bennett been in a position to pass things on. In 2002's excellent Roger Dodger, a smooth-talking ladies man (a superlative Campbell Scott) makes it a goal to get his nephew (Jesse Eisenberg) laid for the first time. His character is sleazy, but a charmer, his motivations laid bare as he tries to instill knowledge upon his blood relation, his self-destructive behavior serving as both the best and worst thing about him. The dialogue absolutely dances, sentences set up like action scenes, and if time has any justice, the film will one day be hailed as a classic.
Compare that to the scene where Bennett and Amy are out in the desert, and she tells him how out here she feels "free." He then proceeds to mock her for all of the typical things girls say when in situations like this, about finding herself and whatnot -- it's a trope. Kudos to the movie for recognizing a trope like this, but it strawmanned itself: you presented the cliché, you let the audience know it's a cliché -- but what then? What do you do with it? Apparently nothing, it turns out. The scene just peters out, and while we have the vague illusion that something might be discovered here, something might be inverted on its head or repurposed anew, nope: the movie ends up being like a new Taylor Swift song: self-reflexive but still not entirely self-aware.
At the end of the day, no, this won't be a classic, even with the occasional spark of originality found here and there -- it's just not enough to make a real fire (unless it's a bonfire, mind you). So let's wrap it up like we know we should: what Taylor Swift song would you say it's most like, Brice?
Ezell: Based on our conversation here, I'd have to say it's whatever Reputation will end up being: all gritty and tough surface, but little substance underneath. I was surprised by The Gambler, but I know long-term I'll see it as a glossy update of That Movie You Find Playing on TNT One Day. For now, all I can do is prepare myself for that inevitably long day on the couch.