With 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt demonstrated a rare enough knack for cramming sophisticated ideas in with the sheeny packaging of the “bespoke” blockbuster. But his remake of Karel Reisz’s addiction drama The Gambler (in and of itself a loose riff on Dostoyevsky’s 1867 novella of same name) fetishizes the underworld from a position of permanent retreat, slick to the point of abstraction. In the original, James Caan’s Alex Freed stood at the nexus of the immigrant and bourgeois experiences, his every desperate maneuver underwritten by a barely concealed resentment of both his own Jewishness and his family’s money. Wyatt’s rendition—in which the antihero is renamed, for whatever reason, as “Jimmy Bennett”—merely appears in the throes of existential boredom, a rich kid grown up dissatisfied with his gilded lot in life. Industry pressers would suggest Bennett has been the most demanding role of Mark Wahlberg’s career, but look past the actor’s diet-desiccated abs and all you’ll see him bring to the table is the exact persona that made him a movie star in the first place: a bro with a cinderblock-sized chip on his shoulder, clawing his way out from everyone else’s expectations one hotheaded diatribe at a time.
Eschewing the sooty off-track joints Reisz picked out within 1970s Manhattan, Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan instead delve into a fantasyland of luxe coastal casinos and neon-lit bathhouses, as shrug-worthy a stab at picturing the contemporary black market as could be requested. If Freed carried himself with Caan’s signature volcano of rage, roiling back only occasionally to leave a scared-shitlessness in its wake, Wahlberg gives Bennett a straitjacketing anxiety from scene one, leaving his motivation essentially a MacGuffin. (The film’s solitary flashback reveals nothing about its hero except that he once swam in a pool as a little boy.) In his day job as the world’s most half-hearted professor of comparative literature, Bennett has exactly one disenchanting agenda to push on his students: “If you’re not a genius, then don’t bother.” Owing an outstanding debt of $250,000 to a wisecracking bookie named Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) with a homicidal reputation, the question becomes not whether Bennett will find a way to pay it off (all signs point to a beleaguered “yes”), but whether or not he fits his own genius criteria.
Bennett is motivated not by self-hatred, but pride, inexplicably denying the lifelines thrown from his life’s periphery—including a paid-in-full bailout from his mother (Jessica Lange) and a new lease on life from Amy (Brie Larson), a promising student with whom he strikes up an entirely predictable dalliance. Bennett’s attachment to his job is so meager that he ditches it in a heartbeat to be with Amy—yet another instance of casually diffused “risk” in a screenplay that direly needed the audience to feel some. The Gambler suffers from a bloodless unwillingness to put too much on the line, made corporeal in Pete Beaudreau’s editing, with music-slathered time lapse standing in for Bennett’s adrenaline-fueled epiphany during a roulette binge in Reno. Substituting quantity of gambling scenes for insight into Bennett’s pathology, the film renders the thrill of almost winning thoroughly impersonal, hoping the jingle-jangle of chips and the reshuffling of cards will be enough to cue audiences in to the movie’s fatal attraction. Like the supporting turns by Lange, Williams, Larson, and John Goodman (as a different wisecracking bookie), these tics are a suitable-enough distraction as Bennett figures out a last-ditch solution to his dull midlife crisis all by his lonesome.