Jim Bennett has a 260,000 dollar trust fund parachute at his disposal. He is a smart college professor. He is good looking. He’s also a degenerate gambler who doesn’t care about owing three different people over 200,000 large each and accepts kicks to the chest and punches to the face as warnings. Bennett, played by a Boogie Nights skinny Mark Wahlberg with a lustful whatever cynicism, is a complete cinematic home run shot. Director Rupert Everett cuts and dices up William Monahan’s script into the middle of this gambler’s drunk salad, and the movie is a pure hypnotic thrill ride.
All I heard about going into the film from critics and other movie fans ran along these lines. Bennett isn’t likable so I can’t like the movie too much. Give me a break and go suck on a paperback Nicholas Sparks novel please. Everybody isn’t a charming sympathetic leading character in films today. The filmmakers took James Caan’s character from the original film in the 1970’s and turned him into a talky English professor philosophy loving gambling poet. I’m all in here. This is the movies, ladies and gents. This IS NOT real life. You want real life. Walk outside and watch traffic go by. I’ll stay here in the theater and bump my hips off the comfy leather seats to The Gambler’s groovy soundtrack(which includes M83, Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, Ray LaMontague among others).
Here’s my rule for anti-hero type protagonists in these kind of dark, moody and slick poker or death exercises. I don’t have to like the person if I can at least understand them. Bennett came from money and was given it all. Life arrived to his chin on a silver platter, so he tortures himself at the roulette and blackjack tables playing with fire and dancing with the devils of temptation. That’s his thrill. You ever know a person who wasn’t nice but was very good at something and didn’t care about losing. A person, like Bennett here, who doesn’t see the limitations you and I do when we go to the gas station and contemplate how much money to put into the tank while leaving some grocery money. A person who knows ZERO fear. As Michael Kenneth Williams(forever Omar from The Wire) tells Wahlberg after being asked if he was collecting, “Maybe I just like to watch the show.” That is my position. The entire film, I simply wanted to see what Bennett did next.
Sure, he isn’t likable. He uses his star basketball player and tennis player in his gambling operations as pawns. He treats his mother like shit even after she drops him a quarter of a million dollars. He tries to push away the beautiful and wise Brie Larson when she wants to get close to his personalized prison cell of misery and decay. He doesn’t smile. He drinks when he should not. He talks shit to dangerous con men and loan sharks. However, he is still fun to watch sink and swim. Wahlberg knows exactly how to play Bennett too. Loose and cool. He doesn’t beg for an Oscar nomination. He already got one of those from a Monahan script(The Departed). He just plays Bennett like a shark with a bomb vest strapped to his chest as he swims through toxic waste.
The rest of the cast is aces. Williams sizzles as a man who likes to watch his loaners scrum. John Goodman delivers a pair of poignant and lethally written speeches with one entitled, “Fuck You Money”. Goodman knows how to take a pair of scenes and make you feel like he has been lurking throughout the entire film. He did it in Inside Llewyn Davis sitting in the backseat of a car. He does it here with Wahlberg in two darkly lit rooms. He’s a golden goose sailing into the latter part of his career. Jessica Lange plays the torn apart mother who cuts the shit better than she ever did in more popular movies. Her face could spawn 100 different paintings of inevitable madness.
Monahan’s script is full of gems, and while preachy and dependent on monologues, he has the cast here to knock it out of the park. Everett’s direction isn’t showy and paints Bennett’s world like a crumbling palace off the shore of paradise. The Gambler does have an optimistic ending and some would say it works off of luck, but when it comes to gambling, luck and danger run hand in hand. You can’t have the sweet without the bitter. The movie doesn’t change our protagonist but simply makes him hinge the rest of his life on a 50/50 bet. To me, that seems accurate for a movie called…you got it.
Go see this film. The acting, direction and writing are solid. The soundtrack is fantastic. The pace is relentless. You may learn what NOT to do at a casino or you may go afterwards. It’s your choice. Bennett’s theory is go big or go home. It has to be all or nothing. The Gambler is a cool precise slice of cinematic pie. Eat it up.