Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Gambler

(Rupert Wyatt, USA, 2014)

I didn't realize until after seeing this film that it was a remake.  I assumed while watching it that it was a vanity project of sorts, although it was hard to tell for whom: William Monahan and his bloated, enervating script, or Mark Wahlberg, who charts the vivid emotional territory between irritability and the temper-tantrum?

Another example of the "mid-range drama" that Hollywood supposedly doesn't make anymore, The Gambler ought to be viewed as a cautionary tale.  Monahan isn't a bad screenwriter - well, at least not when he's got Scorsese at the helm - and Wahlberg is a fine actor who doesn't take enough "serious" roles (and those he does take, like this one, are often phony-serious.) I can't say much for the director, Rupert Wyatt, whose Apes movie I still haven't caught.  He's skilled enough to convincingly set a mood, but his taste for storytelling, and his overall perspective on matter of the human scene, are seriously in question.  He somehow missed the obvious, central of the script, which is that it's miserably overwritten, full of spiraling, faux-intellectual monologues, desultory, unmotivated action, and sub-Tarantino bluster.  The thing is, I'd buy Wahlberg as a self-involved literature professor.  But not this lit professor, who comes off like a version of Nic Pizzolatto, if Pizzolatto was teaching at USC instead of headlining HBO's slow, sad decline into inconsequence.  Like everything in the film, he's just too much, while also being not nearly enough.  It's supposed to be a harrowing existential look into the abyss, but it ends up playing like so much worse: what a Hollywood middlebrow thinks a harrowing existential look into the abyss is like.  We don't feel the sickness unto death - we just roll our eyes and check our watches.

I would be remiss, however, not to mention the two things that stood out as having at least some real substance: the beginning sequence, where Wahlberg gambles away a princely sum over the course of a single evening at an off-the-books Malibu casino.  Wyatt successfully conveys the narcotic rush of both winning and losing big at the tables, and Wahlberg's stumbling out into the dawn, desolate and broke, hints at just how powerful this story could have been.  The other merit point goes to John Goodman.  True, his character is guilty of some of the scripts rampant pontification, but his "fuck you" monologue is a cut above the rest, and his ability to use his body and his wit are a reminder of what talented actors can do, when they are liberated from sub-par material. I hope Wahlberg was taking notes.

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