Monday, 9 February 2015

The Gambler (2015) - Movie Review

Mark Wahlberg has always struck me as an actor who is extremely dependent on his directors, given how capable and incapable he can appear on screen. You give him M. Night Shyamalan and he’ll direct him to be so wooden that he makes the plastic plants he’s talking to look like the foliage in Creepshow. On the other end, hand him to someone like Michael Bay and he’ll get him to emphasise the inherent stupidity of his character and make him scary and funny in his own right. It’s a bit of a crapshoot, is what I’m saying. So, in the hands of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes director Rupert Wyatt, what kind of Mark Wahlberg do we get here?

The plot: Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is an English professor with a chronic gambling addiction who has to settle some debts with gambling den owner Lee (Alvin Ing) and loan shark Neville (Michael K. Williams). He goes through different avenues to try and pay it off, including borrowing even more money from his mother (Jessica Lange) and another loan shark (John Goodman), and gains the attention of his student Amy (Brie Larson) along the way, all while trying to repay his loans within the next 7 days lest he end up dead.

Thankfully, we don’t get the stiff and awkward Wahlberg this time around, to answer our opening question. Jim is characterised here as over-confident and clever while having a bit of an idiot streak, given his compulsive gambling, and Wahlberg conveys it well. He carries the stone-cold poker face during his scenes at the poker table but can dominate the room when he’s teaching at the college. Actually, his scenes in the classroom are his personal best in the film because not only does he have the most presence during these scenes but he also gets the best speeches for them as well. It’s kind of a thrill watching Jim essentially tear through Anti-Stratfordian belief and the elitism attached to it by pointing out the exceptional abilities of his own students, regardless of their socio-economic statuses. That said, he isn’t mollycoddling in how he does it as he believes that only those with abilities worthy of exception should even bother with such ventures, referring to his own middling success in novel-writing. His all-extremes view of the world show through in his approach to gambling and why he takes the risks that he does, making him the sort of layered character that I wish I saw more of in modern cinema. Yes, I know that this is a remake (Of a film I haven’t seen yet, hence why I’m refraining from any comparisons to it) but my point still stands.

I made brief mention of Wahlberg’s turn in Pain & Gain, and while he isn’t portraying that level of idiocy this time around he is still playing a character who makes dumb decisions at times. I bring this up because this portrayal is aided by the fact that, unlike far too many other films, the script is aware that Jim’s actions aren’t advisable and instead use that to build upon his character. Jim’s compulsive gambling isn’t portrayed in a very special episode way but rather as the actions of someone who with a legitimate problem that the film doesn’t make a sharpened point of lecturing him about. Jim is a person who doesn’t know when to hold ‘em or when to fold ‘em, but there is still a certain preternatural luck that surrounds his character.

Throughout the film, there is a running motif of others trying to prevent Jim from making bad decisions “for his own protection”, but he refuses to listen and insists that he knows what he’s doing and how to get out of the debts he keep racking up. Maybe it’s down to some form of luck or his charisma, but he keeps managing to convince people to loan him money, be they less reputable characters or his own mother. Given his line of credit, in that he has none, that is an impressive feat given how seriously some of these people take such matters. There’s also some mentions of other forms of gambling that don’t involve money, like the risks taken in getting into professional sport or novel-writing, and the ideas presented are interesting but the film could have benefited from exploring those a bit more than the couple of scenes we actually get.

So, Wahlberg checks out, how are the rest of the cast? Mostly just okay, honestly. Brie Larson as Amy is good in her role with some decent chemistry with Wahlberg; Michael K. Williams works as the intimidating hustler and Alvin Ing does the minimum required of his typical lead gangster. The two main highlights in the cast are Jessica Lange as Jim’s mother and John Goodman as loan shark Frank. Jessica Lange interacts greatly with Wahlberg, not to mention doing one of the more aggressive bank transactions that I’ve seen. John Goodman, even with having his best moment spoiled by the trailer, makes for the only performance here that could (and sometimes does) surpass Wahlberg’s. The whole ‘fuck you’ speech from the trailer was what drew me to this film in the first place, but there’s a certain air to it that it gains within the context of the film, helped in no small part by Goodman’s low and dangerous tone.

All in all, this is an okay film. Wahlberg is saddled with a director capable of getting a good performance out of him, combined with an interestingly written character for him to portray, and the further writing and supporting cast all work as well. However, in terms of entertainment value, this works better as a film to be examined and dissected rather than something to be purely enjoyed.

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