Is casting Mark Wahlberg as a self-loathing literature professor an inspired or ridiculous choice? Can it be both? It’s hard to decide even after seeing The Gambler, director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan’s re-imagining of Karel Reisz and writer James Toback’s 1974 film. The original story, though it shares some rough similarities with Dostoevsky’s novella The Gambler, was inspired by Toback’s own life as a moneyed Harvard grad and City College lecturer whose own gambling addictions are well documented. His career since has focused on documenting personalities living between seemingly opposite extremes. (In Fingers, the first and best film Toback directed, Harvey Keitel played a concert pianist who worked as a bag man for the mob.)
As the never-smiling, tormented Jim Bennett, Wahlberg gets to put his characteristic glower to good use. By night, he hangs out in dark rooms where the dress code appears simply to be “black,” winning and losing scads of money on blackjack and roulette without so much as a blink. He’s now in trouble with two brutal loan shark/crime lords, and by the end of the film, he’ll be in debt to another. By day, he is a talented, take-no-prisoners literature professor and failed novelist, prone to long monologues before his class about existentialism, suicide, and the unfair distribution of talent. This guy is the ultimate buzzkill: When a student brings up the notion that Shakespeare might not have written the plays credited to him, Jim goes off about how “what lies behind every Shakespeare controversy is rage” — at the fact that someone so low-bred, so unassuming, could be so talented — and then points out the only student in his entire class who he thinks has the requisite talent to succeed at literature. (Surprise, she’s played by Brie Larson, who also happens to work at those gambling establishments Jim frequents, and who has the hots for him.)
To Jim, life seems to be a clutter of roles we play — disguises, really — to avoid the fundamental emptiness at our core. Appropriately, Wyatt (whose previous film was the wonderful 2011 sci-fi reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes) drains his images of color and warmth. This is a chilly, blue-gray-black monolith of a movie, occasionally beautiful and cool, but often forbidding and cruel in its bleakness. That extends to the supporting cast as well. As the trio of loan sharks hounding Bennett, all of them philosophers in their own way, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alvin Ing, and John Goodman all get to stoically expound upon the meaninglessness of life. They’re not characters — they’re existential facts.
Wahlberg has more range than he gets credit for, but he’s not entirely right for the extremes of this part. He can do desperation well, but he’s not exactly a smartest-guy-in-the-room kind of actor. He did make for a brilliant motormouth, though, in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which Monahan also wrote; there, he gave the writer’s elaborate verbal assaults an almost physical force, spitting them out like daggers at pretty much anybody who came along. Here, however, the daggers are pointed inward. The character’s self-loathing and self-destructiveness aren’t even the film’s subtext; they’re its text. Wahlberg gives it the old college try — this is the most present he’s been in a part in ages, and it’s always fun to watch him — but he also struggles with the nonstop verbal curlicues of Monahan’s script. The words have force, but they don’t sound like they’re his.
At the same time, it could be argued that this part calls more for a brute than an intellectual. There’s a physical component to it: Bennett is a man in debt to three very brutal loan sharks, who thumbs his nose at these criminals as he toys with their money. James Caan, who played the role in the (admittedly very different) 1974 film, wasn’t exactly anybody’s idea of a pointy-headed deep thinker either. This is someone putting himself in physical danger, over and over again. And so Wahlberg grows into the part. He may not be right as a precocious, self-loathing intellectual, but he’s very much at home playing a dickhead who’s gotten in too deep. And as The Gambler becomes less about its protagonist’s dashed intellectualism and more about the gathering danger of his predicament, the film gains power.