In Rupert Wyatt’s highball-cool reworking of Karel Reisz’s 1974 The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg does not play a cop, does not shoot bad guys with a gun, and does not spend considerable time shirtless (though we do see him sulking in a bathtub, and there’s a fleeting wet T-shirt moment, too). Unable to fall back on any of his trademarks, Wahlberg, playing a disillusioned literature professor who springs to life only at the gaming table, must work mostly with his eyes. Player wins.
The Gambler is a polished entertainment about a raggedy subject: It’s not meant as a gritty study of the tragedy compulsive gambling can wreak on human lives, but as a fantasy about an obsessive risk-taker who kicks the habit by kicking the stakes sky-high — and by falling in love with a woman who wants him to be the best version of himself he can possibly be, whatever that is. In other words, the pleasures offered by The Gambler are simple, but don’t hold that against it. Wyatt, director of the 2011 surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, brings some bristly, swaggering energy to the thing, and that in turn may have loosened Wahlberg up: He’s both more intense and freer than he’s been in years.
Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett is a trust fund kid who’s reached the limits of parental trust. He lives in a covet-worthy glassy house somewhere around Los Angeles. We know that he can’t possibly afford it on the salary he earns as a teacher at a not-particularly-prestigious-looking college. His gambling winnings don’t sustain him, either — in fact, he’s in debt well past his ears, and the somewhat benevolent owner of his favorite establishment, Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), has at last run out of patience with him. To pay off that debt, Jim turns to a number of increasingly ruthless loan sharks, beginning with cartoon soul-brother Neville Baraka (the cagey-wonderful Michael Kenneth Williams) and big-and-scary white dude Frank (John Goodman, who makes his entrance half-naked in a sauna — his golden moment arrives when he unceremoniously tops off his shaved pate with a misshapen terrycloth beanie that resembles a toddler’s sunhat).
As it turns out, Jim also has a very rich and very foreboding mom in the form of Jessica Lange: She shows up, fabulously, foxtails swinging, a giant alligator Birkin dangling from the crook of her arm. She’s none too happy about handing over a fat sackful of dough to her wayward son, but out of a twisted kind of motherly love, she complies. Don’t even ask what Jim does with the money. Meanwhile, he also finds himself attracted to his brightest student, Amy, played by the breezily charming Brie Larson. Boy, that girl can write! We know this because Jim tells us so, in a rambling but hugely entertaining lecture delivered to his class. As the author of a well-reviewed novel that nonetheless failed to set the world on fire, he makes sourpuss references to his own lack of talent. “If you’re not a genius,” he tells his increasingly slack-jawed students, “don’t bother.”
Rupert and cinematographer Greig Fraser delight in slick, shiny surfaces, roughened up just slightly so they don’t look too clean or polished. When Jim gets behind the wheel of his car — one that’s way too nice for the likes of him, and you can bet he doesn’t hang on to it for long — the lights of the tunnel he’s driving through reflect oh-so-stylishly off the windshield. When he sits down at the gaming tables of Mr. Lee’s posh gambling den, the cushiness around him harbors just a trace of the seedy, a visual reminder that even though gambling feels oh-so-right to Jim, it’s really oh-so-wrong. The dialogue also swings wild and free: The script is by William Monahan, most famous for having written The Departed, though he also directed the wily and underappreciated 2010 crime drama London Boulevard. Monahan’s screenplay channels the ’70s bad-boy spirit of James Toback, who wrote the script for the original: “Genius is magical, not material,” Jim tells his students, turning the line into an advertising slogan against the dangers of overconfidence. In its faux humility, it’s damn cocky.
You can’t really like Jim, but you can’t help feeling something for him, either. The focus is always on his eyes, whether they’re fixed on the chips stacked before him or the dealer glowering warily back at him. For an actor who’s made a career, especially of late, off excessive muscular swagger, Wahlberg can do a lot with a glance — you know there’s a wounded puppy behind Jim’s wildcat glare. And if that sounds like a stock acting-workshop character trait, that, too, is part of the fun of The Gambler. Though it wears a classy veneer, it’s still a genre picture at heart. When you finally walk away from the table, you feel you’ve lost nothing.