In The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg’s Professor Jim Bennett is bad at teaching, bad at gambling, bad at people, and is basically Bad Professor, if only the script had recognized it. I love an asshole protagonist, but there’s a big difference between an asshole who says “f*ck you” and one who whines “but what does it all mean?”
Bennett is a sullen prick to everyone, exploits minorities, gambles horribly, repeatedly gets bailed out because he’s rich, and learns to live again by abusing his position of authority to bang his hottest student (Brie Larson). Worst of all, doesn’t even seem to be enjoying himself. Instead of swearing and swagger, The Gambler gives us dilettantish navel gazing and boo hoo freshman year philosophy sermons. You get the feeling this Bennett character is the filmmakers’ idea of a romantic type, uncompromising and addicted to danger. Only he’s never actually in real danger, because his various creditors (charmingly played by John Goodman, Michael K. Williams, and Alvin Ing), seem more intent on teaching him life lessons than getting him to pay up. They try and try to get him to care about something but he’s just like SO. OVER IT, BRO.
What can you threaten a guy with if he doesn’t care about anything, maaan?? Yep, sullen disaffection as a superpower, this character is every boarding school rebel’s wet dream. “In too deep” in a seedy ethnic underworld (but not really, because his rich family can just keep bailing him out), irresistible to chicks, and down with all the brothers because they respect his swag and ‘tude. Moo-ooom, close the door, I’m trying to play cards with my new friends!
First it’s Michael K. Williams, a stylish, music-loving gangster at an underground Koreatown blackjack table who takes a shine to Bennett even though Bennett starts by insulting his hat and is literally the worst gambler in the entire world. Then it’s Bennett’s star basketball player pupil, who opens up for the first time to his professor, telling him, humorously, “You know, sometimes I just get tired of being Lamar,” even though we don’t know who the hell Lamar is at that point, and again, all prof has done to get him to pour out his heart is insult him. Later, he gets Lamar involved in point shaving.
The question you always ask with a work like this is, does the creator know what a dick his protagonist is, or is he just a dick too? In The Gambler, Bennett is so much more likable to the other fictional characters than he is to us, so coddled by everyone around him in an unacknowledged way, that he feels like the product of a coddled creator.
The big question going in was whether a graduate of Hard Knocks U. Bawstin Chaptah like Mark Wahlberg could pull off playing an English professor. The verdict: …sort of. The film’s take on English professor seems to be “guy who talks really fast and peppers his everyday speech with words like ‘obstreperous,'” and there were a few lines that might have been clever if I’d been able to rewind and figure out what the hell had just been said. In spite of this, Wahlberg brings his familiar, compelling intensity to the role, and I must admit, there’s something strangely suspenseful about watching someone gamble huge sums of money, even when he has no betting strategy, the money doesn’t matter because he’s rich, and the outcome is entirely predictable. God help me, that shot of a roulette wheel puts me on the edge of my seat no matter how many goddamn times I see it.
At the very least, The Gambler made me glad it’s not the seventies anymore. The original, based on a supposedly semi-autobiographical novella by epic blowhard James Toback, came out in 1974, a time when readers and audiences were expected to care about every sullen protagonist with a boner so long as he could string together a few polysyllabic phrases about his own disaffection. Waaah, money’s just a collective illusion, waaah I’m too important to settle for an average life.
At one point, Bennett lectures his students about how greatness is rare, doled out by an unjust God, and if you don’t have it you just shouldn’t bother. Like most of his rants, it’s all phony edge with very little substance, as if Michael Imperioli had shown up in English Lit to give a tequila lecture. Yes, yes, the top is a shot glass, is this going to be on the midterm?
Later, during his umpteenth impromptu existential whine, Bennett goes on a vague, Freud couch rant about not being able to settle for mediocrity in his life, when star pupil Brie Larson attacks him hungrily in mid-sentence, as if nothing gets her wetter than a bloviating 40-something solipsist. It’s just such perfect, wannabe Updike horseshit, where verbosity excuses narcissism, and pussy falls from the sky for whiny depressives.
Aside from Bennett, the film basically consists of a series of “heavies” delivering life lesson monologues. Some of them aren’t bad, with John Goodman’s speech about how “America is built on ‘f*ck you'” being a particular highlight. But in every case, stylized dialogue trumps the believability of that dialog, and “edginess” takes precedence over having an actual point. It sort of feels like 90 minutes of guys asking to show you their dicks.
By the end, it seems Marky Mark has learned to live again thanks to the love of a good woman, and in the process learned some kind of life lesson. What that lesson might be, how he learned it, and why she would love him remain a mystery. The movie itself sort of throws up its hands by the end, closing with, SPOILER ALERT
…an extended shot of Wahlberg running down the street set to soaring music. He’s free, I guess? I don’t know. All I could focus on is that Mark Wahlberg runs funny, like he’s trying to smash grapes between his butt cheeks.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.