Heading into this, clearly the title of the film kind of gives away the main premise of the film. Yes, The Gambler does feature some gambling, but what were really surprising were the intelligent and somewhat philosophical conversations that took place throughout the course of the film. This isn’t just your typical crime thriller, with a stock standard beginning, middle and end, but rather a thoughtful, if not confusing, narrative that delves deeper than your average crime caper.
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a less than average English professor by day and an even worse gambler by night. When things turn sour with an underground Korean gambling unit, he turns to loan shark Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) for some cash. But then he of course blows that money, and thus the trend continues. His rich and discontented mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) gets him the money to clear all debts so far, and like the addicted moron he is, Jim stakes it all and comes up empty. So completely out of his depth Jim turns to yet ANOTHER loan shark, this time Frank (John Goodman), and he takes a massive, final gamble to pay off everyone, hoping to start from scratch without a dime in his pocket. Added to this is his romantic entanglement with his student Amy (Brie Larson) which obviously complicates matters just the tiniest bit more. But hey, Jim is the type of guy we learn from the get go doesn’t really give a “you know what” about, well anything really.
In any film, it’s imperative that there is some level of sympathy or endearment for the main character in order to fuel some of the audiences interest in what happens to that person. And although Wahlberg is good with the material he’s given, the character of Jim was just so unabashedly cocky, that I could just not get on board with the redemption cycle in the last stanza. From recent memory, there’s always some main characters that you’re supposed to dislike based on certain qualities, but you always find a redeeming quality which thus absolves that character from any wrong doing (House M.D. anyone?). The Gambler however just presents us a character that was so annoyingly self-righteous that whether he lived or died had zero effect on me whatsoever. Whether that’s kind of the point remains to be seen, but any protagonist that fails to garner anything other than a negative reaction from their audience takes a toll on the perception of the film as a whole.
The supporting players are the real stars here, especially Goodman and Lange, who both have very little screen time but manage to make the most of it and then some. Deciding the better of the two would be splitting hairs, but they’re both just so reliably brilliant and always on point that any scenes with them were always more charged and purposeful. This is Wahlberg’s vehicle, and he carries with him an air of confidence that lends itself nicely to the type of character Jim is. The last ten years has seen Wahlberg make leaps and bounds in terms of acting choices and the depth of character, and yes Jim was not my favourite person, but that had nothing to do with how he was portrayed. Kudos goes to Wahlberg for getting such a strong reaction, regardless of perception.
The Gambler is not what it at first appears; there are some insightful conversations that take place, that seem foreign given the genre of film. And the protagonist isn’t really a guy you can get behind. But that still doesn’t deter from the fact that The Gambler is still a film worth watching, if only for the unexpected lessons you take away from it.
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