At several times in The Gambler, protagonist Jim Bennett (co-producer Mark Wahlberg) says that he’s not a gambler. This despite the fact that we constantly see him wagering money on blackjack and roulette tables, betting higher and higher no matter how many times people suggest that he walk away, until he finally loses. The guy seems to actively get off on gambling, no matter whether he’s winning or losing.
Yet Jim says that he’s not a gambler. And you know what the crazy thing is? He’s right.
Let’s back up a bit. We first meet Jim when he’s at the deathbed of his grandfather, a tremendously wealthy banker named Ed Bennett (George Kennedy). Jim has a ton of inherited wealth, a nice house, a great car, and he wrote a very well-received novel a few years ago. Yet Jim seems absolutely determined to flush it all down the crapper. He’s an assistant professor of literature, acting so unprofessionally toward his students that he drives them away in flocks. His mother helps provide him with all the money he needs, and he won’t have anything to do with her. And incidentally, he needs all that money because Jim has incurred thousands of dollars in gambling debts with some very dangerous people. After going all-in on blackjack until he loses. Repeatedly.
There’s a point in the movie when Jim says that he was once up $2.5 million. Taking the guy at his word, just think about that. Jim could have walked out of a casino two and a half million dollars richer, but he chose to leave it all on the table until he went bust. This is not the action of a man who plays to win. It isn’t even the action of a man who wants to keep on living.
No, it’s clearly obvious that Jim has a death wish. He wants to throw away everything he has, but he doesn’t have the guts to do it himself. He wants to die, preferably in the most painful way possible, but he needs someone else to throw the punches.
Moreover, we learn very early on — during one of Jim’s classes, in fact — that Jim has a very binary view of the world with regard to talent. Either you’re a genius or you’re not. Either you’re worthwhile or you’re nothing. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to how the fates dole out talent, and no force on earth can save those who weren’t selected. For instance, anyone who isn’t a gifted writer has no business even trying to learn how to write, and you can start to understand why Jim isn’t a very popular teacher.
Evidently, Jim has decided that he can’t be a genius. So if he can’t achieve the greatest heights, he’s going to sink to unfathomable lows. Because the middle ground is the safest place and fuck that noise.
There are so many problems with this premise. First of all, the very nature of gambling is very heavily set on chance, without even the semblance of skill or strategy that comes with counting cards. And yes, Jim does eventually start gambling to win, because that’s the only way he can hope to get enough money to keep everyone happy. This is a problem, because luck is not conducive to good storytelling. There’s no way for a writer to set up the result of a coin toss, just as there’s no way for a character to earn a good hand at blackjack. Jim is entirely at the mercy of the screenwriter, completely unable to control his own fate, which is not where you want your protagonist to be. If his development and his story all depend on a lucky break that’s out of his hands, then what’s the point?
Secondly, because of the path our character has set himself on, he’s determined to go on a downward spiral until every last thing he owns has gone up in flames. With the distinct possibility that he and the rest of his entire bloodline will be slaughtered by half the organized crime in Los Angeles. So, remind me why anyone would want to follow this protagonist, again?
This brings me to my third point: This might potentially have been an interesting journey to go on, if there was any depth to the main character’s motivations. We never get a decent explanation for how Jim came to believe his black-and-white philosophy with regards to genius, we never learn how or why Jim came to hate himself so deeply, and we never learn why Jim — who, remember, is a guy with the world at his feet — decided to throw away everything and become a great bloody punching bag for gangsters.
To be fair, we do get something about how Jim’s dad left him and his mom a long time ago under unknown circumstances, but that’s not gonna fly here. That doesn’t take away from the fact that his mother obviously loves him dearly, his father’s father (that would be the now-deceased banker) gave Jim everything, and this whole angle is given so little screentime that there’s absolutely no gravity in Jim’s decision to let his mother go. I should also add that his mother was played by a thoroughly wasted Jessica Lange, which adds insult to injury.
Mercifully, the movie is good enough to give us someone to root for as the second act progresses. See, when the debt collectors finally realize that Jim doesn’t give a damn about his own life, they start going after the people that Jim might care about. Namely, his students. However, this has the unfortunate side effect of making Jim even less sympathetic, because it means that he was dumb enough to think that this wouldn’t be an option.
One of the endangered innocents is Amy (Brie Larson), who’s held up as the only student Jim has with any hope of a professional writing career. I assume this is because she acts like an unassuming wallflower in class, but the point is irrelevant. The important thing is that she serves as Jim’s love interest, because what’s an unethical student/teacher relationship when he’s already trying to bury his own career? But as to why Amy goes after him and actively encourages their affair, I have absolutely no idea. Larson and Wahlberg are both more than charismatic enough to sell me on their chemistry, but their romance is still very much plot-motivated instead of character-motivated.
In point of fact, it’s really the actors who make this whole thing worth watching. Wahlberg is compelling enough to stay watchable, in spite of the worthless protagonist he’s playing. We also have Michael K. Williams playing a fantastic gangster, but that should go without saying at this point. Then there’s John Goodman, who steals the show with his distinctive brand of comical bluster. Of course, Brie Larson is always a pleasure to see onscreen, and Jessica Lange’s reputation should speak for itself. Kudos are also due to director Rupert Wyatt and writer William Monahan, both of whom deliver the story with such a slick presentation.
That’s ultimately The Gambler in a nutshell: Style over substance. Sure, there are some hints at a few good potential themes here, but they’re all so half-baked and insubstantial that it results in a protagonist who’s not worth following in a story that’s barely worth watching. Nonetheless, some strong performances and confident direction keep the movie watchable.
Of course, another big problem is the release date. If this movie had come out in a less remarkable month like August or April, it might easily have been worth the ticket price. But a Christmas Day release date opposite so many films gunning for Oscars and box office grosses? No way. This is not good enough for awards consideration and there are too many better movies to go watch right now.