The Gambler (2014)

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Movie a Day Blog is a firm believer in the adage that there is no sense in remaking a good movie. A second effort will inevitably be compared to the original, and will usually come up short.

Such is the case with THE GAMBLER (2014, Theatrical), which does a bad job of trying to retell James Toback’s original gonzo gambling downward spiral tale that the late British director Karel Reisz made into a great film in 1974. The problems are manifold, but they can be summed up in two major areas: story and performance.

While a good screenwriter (THE DEPARTED, 2006), William Monahan is also responsible for Ridley Scott’s disastrous Crusades script, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), and he can’t hold a candle to Toback’s manic energy in his story of a Columbia University Professor who loses everything to his addiction to gambling on anything and everything. The part was originally vividly realized by James Caan, at the height of his own acting prowess, and I’ve never forgotten the performance, Caan slumped in a bathtub at the end, his life broken.

This leads to the other problem in THE GAMBLER: Mark Wahlberg, who is primarily a re-actor, someone who does better responding to a stronger performance, sort of like a counter-puncher in boxing. Surround Wahlberg with a great cast, as in THE FIGHTER (2010, Movie a Day Blog 12/16/10), and he rises to the occasion. But asking him to carry the entire film on his shoulders, as s Caan did, is fruitless, since Wahlberg can’t reach deep enough as an actor to portray any more than the most obvious emotions: anger, resentment, shame and narcissism.

Director Rupert Wyatt, who did a good job helming RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011, Movie a Day Blog 8/7/11), seems out of his element here without any special effects to fall back upon. Interestingly, like Reisz, he is a British director looking at a particular manifestation of American male culture, but unlike Reisz, he seems to bring no special perspective to the story.

Caan’s gambling compulsion was visceral — we could feel him sweating out the ending of a college basketball game he helped fix. When Wahlberg goes through the same scene, I could have cared less, and Wahlberg did little to make me care more. Jessica Lange, as spoiled-rich-boy Wahlberg’s disappointed mother, looks re-manufactured, and like everyone else in the film, has little to do but make concerned noises about Wahlberg’s steady decline.

Brie Larson is totally wasted as Wahlberg’s sometimes-girlfriend, and Michael Kenneth Williams, the black actor to go to these days, is not given much room to work in as one of Wahlberg’s mob creditors. The threats in this film never feel very real, and remembering the crackerjack tension of the original film, there is remarkably little suspense over Wahlberg’s eventual fate. Only the scenes with John Goodman as a behemoth Shylock in a steam bath, resonate with any of the juice of the 1974 movie.

That’s the problem with remakes. The good original keeps coming back to highlight the deficiencies of the re-try, and makes them look even worse. THE GAMBLER isn’t a terrrible film, it’s just a boring, slightly inept one. Toback wrote a glorious on-line denunciation of the remake, and the failure of the original film’s producer Irwin Winkler to even let the writer know that a remake was planned.

The better film lives, on however. Rather than waste your time with this version of THE GAMBLER, try to find a streaming version (it’s no longer on Netflix) of the original. Your time and money will be better spent.

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