THE GAMBLER Mark Wahlberg
Credit: Claire Folger

Even if you’ve never seen James Caan’s dazzling 1974 version of The Gambler, you’ll probably walk out of the remake assuming the original was better. Almost anything would have to be. Miscast, misguided, and a missed opportunity on just about every level, Rupert Wyatt’s overly slick underworld thriller about a literature professor with a spiraling-out-of-control betting addiction is one of the bigger disappointments of the holiday season. For a film about gambling, it’s strangely averse to risk. The missteps start at the top. Mark Wahlberg can be raw and vulnerable in the right role, but he’s never believable as the self-destructive scholar Jim Bennett. It isn’t just the laughably unconvincing way he interacts with his students in the classroom; it bleeds over into the moments that are supposed to give the film a dark, after-hours punch. In one early scene, Bennett shows up at an illegal high-roller casino up in the hills overlooking the Pacific. He walks up to a blackjack table and coolly blows through $80,000 as if it’s nothing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t: Wahlberg’s face is such a blank you can’t tell. In the earlier film, as Caan was sinking deeper and deeper into an existential black hole, he at least gave you a glimpse of the death-wish high he was chasing. You felt sick watching him lose. But Wahlberg is a cipher. After he’s borrowed more money and squandered that, too, the walls start closing in on him. He’s on the hook to the sorts of people you don’t want to owe money to, like John Goodman’s chrome-domed loan shark (one of the movie’s few highlights). Scrambling to raise cash, Bennett hits up his disapproving wealthy mother (Jessica Lange, who can do icy in her sleep), falls into bed with one of his students (Brie Larson, in a thankless role), and dodges an endless volley of knuckle-dragging goons. It’s all so formulaic and flat, you’d think that screenwriter William Monahan would at least stick to the original’s boldly bleak non-Hollywood ending, right? Guess again. The one bit of good news is that the first Gambler is currently streaming on Netflix. Do yourself a favor and watch that one instead. C-

The Gambler
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