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The Gambler Review: Wahlberg Elevates His Game, But Does the Script?

Does The Gambler achieve Oscar glory, or it does it make the 2014 'great acting/poor scripts' trash pile?

Review by Matt Cummings

Unfortunately, The Gambler's stellar performances are lost on a script that doesn't seem to know how the real world works.

For trust funder Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), life is a pretty dull affair. A well-reviewed writer who gained all of $7,000 for his work, the only excitement Jim can find is through illegal gambling, and playing with big sums of money. He's soon up beyond his ears in debt, and his bankroller Mr. Lee refuses to play along. It's here that Jim enlists a collection of ruthless loan sharks including the gangster Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the scary bald guy Frank (a mostly unclothed John Goodman). But it's the love from one of Jim's students (Brie Larson) who represents the last chance he has to bring himself back from the brink of a perceived failed life, while another promises to be a dangerous elixir that can solve all of his debts.

Wahlberg arguably turns in his best performance ever because he doesn't need to be nude, carry a gun, or get caught up in one of his 'Marky-Mark' moments of elevated voice that have made critics crazy over the years. He's slimmed down to a shadow of a man, leaving his deep-set eyes to show off a burning desire to find real meaning to his life. His interactions with mom (Jessica Lange) to bail him out result in some terrible decision-making, mostly because Jim hates her for all the years of perceived neglect. That doesn't make for good theater, but Wahlberg's sessions with both Williams and Goodman are pure goodness, bolstered by The Departed penner William Monahan's script. There's a derelict nature to Jim, in which no bullet or threat of violence can return him to normalcy. When Neville runs out of options for torture, it's almost as if Jim has won, until Neville realizes Jim's secret weapon is a struggling athlete (Anthony Kelley) who sees the NBA as a fast-track to respectability.

Director Rupert Wyatt dresses every scene in beautiful city colors that remind me of Nightcrawler or Drive, his artistry in stark contrast to that of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Goodman proves that his every-other-year Supporting Oscar awards are based on the quality of his work - here, his long monologue about a certain NSFW phrase is an instant classic that shows why he is perhaps the best there is at this kind of performance. Williams too shows us his skills, engaging Jim in a classic game of tennis but yearning for a new life far away from drugs and gambling.

But it's Brie Larson's Amy which ultimately undoes the story. Birds can't suddenly turn to dogs, and for Jim the idea of being rescued by one of his students whom he sees as a brilliant student - but we're given no evidence to prove it - doesn't feel believable. People like Jim always find themselves on the losing end, because their gambling ultimately consumes them. Jim's attention towards Amy is out of character, and the redemption story is hollow. It violates one of the classic avenues of storytelling, that of showing the story rather than telling it. In many ways, The Gambler is the perfect film to teach how films can work and ultimately fail when mantras such as these are ignored.

The Gambler succeeds because of its performances, not its script. The wild and unlikely journey of Jim Bennett doesn't exist in the real world: characters find themselves shot (see Bad Lieutenant), a victim of their own greed and shortsightedness. Redemption doesn't happen either because of love, making everything we see feel a bit delusional. Wahlberg turns in a great performance - perhaps the best of his career - but the lack of depth in the characters surrounding him (especially that of Larson) makes the ending unlikely and the journey seem like we wasted our time. I can't imagine this will garner the attention Wyatt and Wahlberg would have envisioned, but it is another example of a year in which performances beat out scripts 9 times out of 10.

The Gambler is Rated R for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity and has a runtime of 111 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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