In The Gambler, Mark Whalberg gives a performance he should be proud of.
The Gambler, directed by Rupert Wyatt. On screens around New England.
By Paul Dervis
Whether you are a fan of Mark Whalberg’s work or not, it would be difficult to be unimpressed with his portrayal of professor Jim Bennett in the remake of The Gambler. Written by James Toback and directed by Karel Reisz, the 1974 original served as a star vehicle for actor James Caan, so it was a risk for Wahlberg because comparisons with Caan are inevitable…but the local performer acquits himself quite nicely here.
Not only that. He is surrounded by a cast that supports his performance beautifully.
Bennett, a professor of literature at a major Los Angeles university, is self destructive to the extreme. He has a cushy, permanent position at the school, drives a flashy red BMW, comes from piles of old money (his grandfather is the 17th richest man in California, we are told), and loves to play the high stakes tables. Yet despite his good fortune, the academic is full of self-loathing…as well as disdainful of mankind in general. He wrote a novel that undoubtedly got him tenure but, given his doubts about its merits, it also solidified his sense of worthlessness.
As the film opens, Bennett is on a roll at the casino. He lets his money ride and his winnings keep piling up. But he can’t stop himself for pressing his luck too far, and the inevitable happens. He is already some forty odd thousand in debt to the club owner, a kingpin in L.A.s Koreatown neighborhood. He has seven days to pay off. Seven days. In that time he only digs his hole deeper. For a fellow making what couldn’t be much more than $100,000 a year, the debt appears insurmountable.
Ah, but he comes from wealth. Oh, but in the film’s opening sequence his grandfather, played by the ancient George Kennedy, tells Bennett he is cutting him out of the will. Yet there’s always his mother. Bennett drops in on her whenever he is about to get his legs broken.
By this time he’s into it for well over a hundred thousand. She’s bailed him out before, and she’ll do it again. But for the last time. If Bennett didn’t have what amounted to a death wish this film would be over.
Not a chance.
The man can’t help himself. As soon as he gets cash in his pockets he just has to go back to the tables. And it is clear he’s no good at it. Soon he is in for a quarter of a million to three different loan sharks, all capable of not only taking him out, but his family and lovers as well.
And speaking of lovers, he is having a thing with one of his students…a plot twist that could be a film all by itself, but in The Gambler it’s a mere subplot.
Wahlberg does a remarkable job of balancing Bennett’s two opposed lives while never letting us lose sight of the fragile ego at the core. His performance here is more internalized than any he has done before. Wahlberg remains ‘poker faced’ throughout, yet intimations of anger and panic are never far from the surface. And for an actor who dropped out of high school, he is bang on in his etched-in-acid portrait of a jaded professor. Strategically abusive to his students, he alienates a large portion of them in order to appeal to a select few. It was easy to see that this poor soul has become destructive to himself and others.
Jessica Lange, as Bennett’s mother, created a woman who deeply cared for her son, but was hardened from having to deal with him through his years of addiction. Lange has matured from a capable lead actress into a powerful character actor. Here’s hoping we see more of this metamorphosis in her future.
Relative newcomer Brie Larson, who is better known for television (United States of Tara, Community) than film, gives a quietly effective turn as Bennett’s talented but damaged student/lover. Toward the end of the movie, the gambler is propelled to do the right thing in order to protect her life.
Good as the supporting cast is, The Gambler is Wahlberg’s film. He has made good ones in the past. The Fighter comes quickly to mind, and early in his career he supported Leonardo DiCaprio in the under appreciated The Basketball Diaries. But along the way he has made far too many silly, juvenile flicks, such Ted and Date Night.
With The Gambler, Wahlberg has something to be really proud of.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.