In The Gambler Boston-born actor Mark Wahlberg plays a man with a death wish who’s reached the last of his nine lives. Borrowing money from gangsters and offering his life as collateral, he’s a drowning man in search of oblivion or a second chance. CAHIR O’DOHERTY reviews screenwriter William Monahan’s (most famous for Boston crime caper The Departed) bleak tale and discovers the Irish American writer from Dorchester has written the script of the year.
There are some who insist on doing it the hard way -- living and learning, that is. In The Gambler actor Mark Wahlberg, 43, plays one of those dangerous unfortunates, an alienated New England college professor who ends up learning more about life from his students than he knows how to teach them himself.
The first thing we learn about Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is that he has been born at third base holding a stack of aces. He’s handsome, white, rich and artistically gifted but apparently he doesn’t want any of it.
What Jim really wants is his grave, apparently – so the question is why does a man who clearly has it all desperately want to be rid of it all?
If that sounds like a first world problem Bennett be the first to admit it himself. If you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth and you find you have to risk it all to feel anything, then Bennett’s the kind of guy you’ll identify with.
Other people refer to Bennett as the type of gambler “that likes to lose” and some call him “the world’s dumbest a**hole.”
The truth is he’s both. Bennett is the kind of malcontent who would probably cut himself with a rusty nail just to make life more interesting, but he’s clearly in search of something grander than a cheap thrill at a roulette table.
It turns out what he’s really looking for is himself and possibly someone else who’s just as weird and off kilter to share it with – he just hasn’t quite figured that out yet.
“I like seeing Mark in anything,” Monahan told the press this week. “I think he can do anything. He’s a phenomenally talented man. And he’s from Boston, which gives him a good edge in my book.”
Wahlberg certainly looks the part as the man who’s reached his last chance to become the person he actually wants to be, rather than the one he is. But in a Monahan script the leading man rarely does things the easy way, and so it proves with The Gambler.
When we meet Bennett he’s slipping quietly between his daytime college job and moonlighting at Korean-run blackjack tables at night. But Bennett’s been on a major losing streak and his debts have mounted to the point where the gambling establishments owner Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing) has warned him its time to pay it all back.
Being an accident looking for somewhere to happen, this doesn’t worry Bennett at all. When he fails to raise the cash from his wealthy family he decides to raise the stakes and request an eye-popping loan from another deadly loan shark (John Goodman, who gives the most quietly compelling performance in the film).
Bennett is given just seven days to pay back the $240,000 he owes or, as they say in less literary gangster capers than this one, he’ll be sleeping with the fishes. This starts the clock on a seven-day adventure, and the question is will Bennett get over his self-destructive cycle and save himself or will he fail to pay up and get whacked?
Into this deadly stand off comes a gorgeous and gifted young woman called Amy Phillips (Brie Larson). Phillips is Bennett’s most gifted student and she’s the woman whose presence slowly reminds him there are some pretty compelling alternatives to romantic self-destruction.
Monahan’s rapid-fire dialogue is literary, full of highbrow references and butch as a black leather Harley Davidson jacket. Wahlberg already proved in the previous mob caper The Departed that he’s in his element delivering the street tough philosopher king speeches that the Monahan has written for him. But in The Gambler he has a harder time finding a way to connect his complacent character with the audience.
Bennett has lost interest in himself, everyone else and even in living. He’s trying to force other people to write his own unhappy ending. So if he doesn’t care for himself, why should we?
By the time the Korean mob arrive to rough him up to remind him the clock is running out we start to see their point. What will it take to wake this dead inside rich boy?
That’s where Wahlberg’s performance under-serves Monahan’s script. Scaling back to allow the other leads to take the spotlight, Wahlberg seems to consistently miscalculate the degree of warmth or empathy the audience will need to take even a momentary shine to his jaded character.
As his long suffering mother, actress Jessica Lange is a terrifically compelling mixture of fury and despair, driven to her wits end by her laconic and unreachable son. She knows he’s a world-class case of arrested development and Lange has a lot to do to fill in the blanks left by Wahlberg’s stony-faced character.
Most of the men in The Gambler (with the exception of Goodman) turn out to be the least interesting people in the film. It’s given to Lange and Larson to bring the film its warmth and elevate its stakes.
That’s not to say that Wahlberg’s icy, remote presence sinks the enterprise. The fact is that Monahan has crafted one of the most absorbing scripts of the year. It’s just that the audience’s patience for this has it so good he has it bad character was always going to be a tough sell and Wahlberg undersells it.
Monahan has written a black as pitch script, one that eschews sentimentality and tells a rough story about what it really takes to live. The problem is that neither the film’s director Rupert Wyatt or its star seem to want to take us on the journey into the heart of darkness that Monahan has written for them.
Towards the film’s conclusion the bright lights of the casino have long given way to a dull underworld hell-scape of misery and fear. What seemed to offer Bennett a second chance is actually the thing that’s going to consume him. This is dark stuff, but neither Wahlberg or the director seem to want to spend a minute more than have to contemplating it.
The Gambler is a reworking of a 1970s character study of the same name. But over the decades the unflinching style of film making that inspired the original movie has given way to 2014 fist in the air final acts set to rock music.
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote T. S. Eliot, and it seems that modern audiences are increasingly being forced to agree with him. Monahan has written a muscular and remarkable script, but neither Wahlberg’s strangely bloodless performance or Wyatt’s gaze seem to want to linger too long on the dark themes it tackles.
It’s a shame because Monahan has managed to smuggle in a great deal of contraband like stinging critiques of the modern novel, the complete inability of cash to cure the soul, the way that the disavowal of complexity reassures the mediocre, and the way what we risk can reveal what we value. The problem is neither Wahlberg or Wyatt seem willing to risk it.
The Gambler opens Friday, December 19.