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Gambler, The (2014)

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Score: 7/10

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: December 19th, 2014 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Rupert Wyatt Actors: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Michael K. Williams, Sonya Walger, Cassandra Starr, Anthony Kelley

W

hen Jonathan Bennett passes away, he leaves behind only his concerns for his grandson, James (Mark Wahlberg), who doesn’t appear to possess a basic adaptability to hardship and discontent. The same night, James heads to a ritzy underground gambling parlor to play some high-stakes blackjack. He’s not exactly good at the game, nor is he particularly lucky – but he knows how to quickly make enemies. In short time, he owes $240,000 to the house, run by a Korean kingpin, and another $50,000 (plus interest) to the gangster Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams). And he has just seven days to pay it all back.

In an attempt to manufacture suspense, the title “7 Days” flashes onto the screen, followed by a regular interval countdown, supplemented by pop music and flippant behavior toward what should be a very dire situation. As if compelled by a sickness or disease, James continues to traverse a road of self-destruction and indifference, even when his mother (Jessica Lange) and a student he falls in love with (Brie Larson as Amy) get caught up in the path for potential sadistic retaliation. As he selfishly drags his friends and family down into the underworld of gambling addiction and merciless bookies, he’s never given a chance at true redemption. In fact, many of the things he does to alter his financial detriments are so despicable and careless that many viewers will feel apathetic to the tortures he’d surely undergo at the hands of aggravated lenders – if this were a more realistic environment.

Oddly, the tone is rather lighthearted, never presenting seriousness for his quandaries, despite the apparent dangers of owing huge sums of money to ruthless thugs. John Goodman as Little Frankie, who delivers many of the best lines, is supposed to be the most unconscionably vile brute of the bunch, yet he’s portrayed as something of a playfully condescending uncle. Outside of his extracurricular addiction, James is an associate professor, teaching English courses with unorthodox methods and blunt philosophies on skills and pursuits. “If you’re not a genius, don’t bother,” he instructs his students, as he firmly believes that extraordinary talent manifests randomly, without lineage, wealth, or education serving as contributing factors. The screenplay is clever in its pessimism, frankness, and wittiness, allowing characters to impart logic rarely spoken in film. The cynical outlook and straightforward convictions might be the only redeeming ideals of a man so morally corrupt and mentally weak as to remain suicidally unresponsive to emotional and physical stimuli.

Regardless of the amusing commentary on mediocrity and happiness or the existential approach to victory and starting over, Bennett is wholly unsympathetic. Why Amy throws herself at him is never explained. And as the picture builds to what promises to be a thrilling conclusion (placing all the momentum on a final twist or shock), it fails to acknowledge James’ worth or reformation. During the seconds that matter most, he still relies entirely on luck, not intelligence (there’s no rousing “Ocean’s Eleven” type of heist to be found here). Ultimately, it’s an examination of unmanageable addiction and the largely alienating effects this particular one imparts – the kind infrequently touched upon by mainstream cinema. That there is some satisfaction in the parting shots is definitely an uncommon feat for a character study about an antihero of such excruciatingly ineffectual scruples – but it’s too little too late. Based on the screenplay by James Toback (for the 1974 film starring James Caan), “The Gambler” is a strange choice of adaptation for Oscar-winning William Monahan, who previously penned “Kingdom of Heaven (2005),” “The Departed” (2006), and “Edge of Darkness” (2010).

– Mike Massie

 



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