The Gambler (Paramount Pictures, R)

gambler 75It expects you to care that this fictional character wants another card at 18 when you don’t give a shit about him in the first place.

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Usually my least favorite movies of the year aren’t exactly the objectively worst films, but instead those with the most potential they failed to live up to. Judging by that criteria, Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler, a remake of the 1974 James Caan vehicle of the same name, is among my least favorite movies of the year. Movies about habitual, high-stakes gamblers? Cool. A cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, and John Goodman? Super cool. A script by William Monahan, who wrote The Departed? Sounds good. The Gambler? Not good at all.

Wahlberg plays the Caan character, Jim Bennett, the grandson of the 17th-richest man in the country, but who never has any money on account of his habit of going to high-stakes casinos and losing. Apart from coming from money, Bennett is something of a success himself: He’s a published and well-reviewed novelist, he’s a college professor, he drives a nice car, and he wears a $5,000 watch. But none of that really matters, because he spends his free time shitting away tens of thousands of dollars, to the point where he’s indebted to multiple shady characters around town.

Goodman’s Frank is the least shady of the people to whom Bennett owes money; he seems to have a vested interest in actually helping the guy. Also, Goodman’s the only actor who comes out of this movie okay. Wahlberg, an actor I’ve been a big fan of since Boogie Nights (for which I got in a lot of heated arguments on his behalf, and I stand by my position that he’s incredible in it), plays the gambler side okay but doesn’t seem credible as an academic, despite the fact that his teaching style is written unlike how a normal professor would behave. 

Williams plays crime boss Neville Baraka, and while his performance is just fine, this is yet another movie he’s been in that makes you wish some filmmaker, somewhere would cast him in a fucking good leading role for a change. He only played the second-best character in the history of television, The Wire’s Omar Little, and I’m tired of seeing him in piddly supporting roles in movies, and usually as a generic bad guy. He deserves much better.

Moving on…I’ve seen 10 movies Brie Larson has been in—she’s Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the main character in Short Term 12, the love interest in 21 Jump Street, the sister who’s always on her phone in Don Jon, etc.—and The Gambler is the first one in which she gave a bad performance. She spends most of her screen time just widening her eyes, which gets tiresome fast. That said, she doesn’t have much of a role to work with; her character is in the thankless position of being a waitress at a casino, Bennett’s pupil at college, and a potential love interest. I don’t know if we have an actress with the chops to pull off that kind of schlock.

In the end, The Gambler has a good premise, but doesn’t make use of it; it’s mostly just boring and/or pretentious. It has a great cast, although all but Goodman are miscast. It expects you to know a little bit about how to, say, play blackjack, which is fine, but at the same time it expects you to care that this fictional character wants another card at 18 when you don’t give a shit about him in the first place. | Pete Timmermann

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