Rupert Wyatt's “The Gambler,” which premiered at the 2014 AFI Fest Monday night, puts a stylish spin on Karel Reisz's 1974 James Caan drama of the same name. In adapting James Toback's original script, Oscar winner William Monahan (“The Departed”) has laced it with crackling dialogue and heady witticisms that land like cards of a rapid fire blackjack deal. Greig Fraser has captured it in cool digital hues with '70s lenses that pay tribute to an era. And Mark Wahlberg, seemingly starved down to a 60-pounds-less frame, anchors it with a performance that is committed and interesting, a complete 180 from the popcorn blast of the summer's “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” But will it find a jackpot from the Oscar season or a bad beat?
That was certainly the question Paramount had in mind when the powers that be were trying to decide whether the film should be exposed this time of year or just hold off for safer pastures in the spring. With a star like Wahlberg at the table, someone they would surely like to keep happy for future rock 'em sock 'em robots pictures, it makes sense to give it a shot. After all, the film is a quirky, unique element of a season that has long felt vulnerable. But one place it's certainly is not vulnerable is the Best Actor race, and as good as Wahlberg is as a professor with a severe gambling addiction, that's just going to be too tough a nut to crack.
On the periphery there are great supporting performances from Jessica Lange and particularly John Goodman, bald and vicious as a loan shark who tells it like it is. But neither has enough screen time to really build that kind of steam. I mentioned this to Wahlberg at Saturday's Governors Awards, but the cut started at 140 minutes, he confided, and was whittled down from there; naturally, you end up murdering your darlings, to steal a phrase. But I was left wanting more of Goodman's character in particular. I think he could have had an angle on his first-ever Oscar nomination, at least.
One element that does feel sort of superfluous, even though she's a great actress and plays the role perfectly fine, is Brie Larson. It's more or less the Lauren Hutton role from the original film, but it's been fashioned as the student-in-puppy-love part here. A bit thankless, really, and enough for some to view the film as a bit of a male fantasy. Which it is, value judgment or not.
If the film has any real leeway it may be in an adapted screenplay race that isn't quite as competitive as its original counterpart. Again, Monahan's words crackle and pop, some sentiments so dense as to have surely been cooked up in a fog of inebriation (I'm guessing). There were moments when I had to replay a line in my head to make sure I even understood its thesis. Maybe I'm just getting old. But I liked that quality, still.
It's a particular sort of film and an interesting direction for Wyatt, who told me Saturday night that he wanted to take the “Planet of the Apes” franchise into the cities rather than the forrest at Fox before he and the studio amicably parted ways. (Matt Reeves eventually took up the mantle with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”) He got to scratch that itch a bit here with an urban, character drama that provided a nice opportunity for a number of actors.
Sometimes, that's all you really want.
“The Gambler” hits theaters Dec. 19.