Place your bets, ladies and gents: Will this update of 1974’s The Gambler, in which James Caan played a college prof addicted to the turn of the card and the role of the dice, equal or surpass the original? Don’t get your hopes up.
But it’s not for lack of trying. Mark Wahlberg brings a fierce energy to the role of compulsive gambler Jim Bennett that almost gets you over the rough spots. What this remake lacks is the hypnotic pull of the first version, directed by Karel Reisz from an autobiographical script by first-timer James Toback that bristled with swaggering wit and philosophical gamesmanship. The new version is directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) from a script by William Monahan, who wrote The Departed — a film that won Wahlberg an Oscar nomination for the way he spewed out its tough-talking dialogue.
The fit of actor and role is not so smooth here. You can feel the strain as the story switches locales from New York to Los Angeles where Jim teaches a college class on the modern novel and castigates his students for not being able to recognize genius even when they read it. One exception is Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a pupil who knows her stuff and also knows that her prof spends his nights losing his shirt at blackjack at the Korean-run casino where she works. Jim has led a privileged life thanks to his mother (the reliably superb Jessica Lange). But after his fed-up mom bails Jim out to the tune of the $240,000 he owes casino owner Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), our boy is back at tables. He also makes the major mistake of borrowing money from loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) and later from Frank (a funny-scary John Goodman), a lender for whom a pound of flesh is insufficient payback.
Wyatt keeps the action coming at a fast clip, but watching Jim repeatedly pursue a path of self-destruction for reasons never made clear grows wearying. The romance between Jim and Amy feels cooked up, despite the talents of Larson, who impressed mightily in Short Terms 12. Jim is playing a losing game with himself and his efforts to prove something by putting his life in dire danger can test audience patience beyond endurance. The hopeful ending comes off as too little, too late. Wahlberg gives the role his all, but sticking with Jim is a futile gesture. The Gambler never pays off. It’s a sucker’s bet.