The Gambler

Know When to Fold Them

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson

Review written by Robert D. Patrick

A razed piñata of spilled spirits and emotional needling. Imagine a 21-year-old community college student who loves Charles Bukowski, Jameson whiskey, existential seething, and the musing of Tom Waits. Now, imagine that he’s seen a lot of Charlie Kaufman films, secretly loves action movies, and enjoys using the word “dig.” Imagine this guy writing what he thinks is a super-cool, crass, boss film about a college professor who wears sunglasses and berates his students. Everyone uses the expression “dance with the devil” because, man, everything is so badass. Tits, gangsters, and curt retorts are slung throughout this barbed travelogue of doubt and sin. It’s the kind of egocentric cattle herding that an eighteen-year-old bro would love.

William Monahan’s script is a masturbatory exercise in things he thinks are cool and taboo. The Gambler, based on the book of the same name by James Toback, must be the worst film of the year. Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, an apathetic literary savant with the heart of an iron maiden. Crossed by his own inability to become content with his success as a writer, he delves into the underground world of gambling. Wahlberg enunciates “fuck,” about six times a sentence, to let you know how morally unstable and emotionally wilted his character has become. The braggadocio and thunder of Bennett’s personality feels exhausting in the hands of Wahlberg’s inauthentic pandering.

The rest of the cast does not have it much better.

Jessica Lange spits acerbic bullets whenever she is on screen, but the tremors of her disquieting lilt do nothing for a movie that flatlines from the opening scene on. Brie Larson wrinkles her nose, emits affable zingers, and pounces on our weary protagonist in his time of need. But her character lacks dimension and self-awareness, only existing as a prop to gratify the male ego of this film. The hugely talented Michael J. Williams appears as a heavy, and resigns himself to the middling role of a volatile bad guy. Williams is forced to deliver laughable lines such as “tick-tock, motherfucker” in a sort of passionless intonation that cries of resignation. John Goodman’s dialogue is so wholly indistinguishable from Wahlberg’s repertoire of vulgarities that its permissible to assume that the screenwriter thought they were the same character.

Director Rupert Wyatt waterboards the audience in testosterone and malaise until it’s hard to recover. None of the suspense is built with care, and none of the characters operate with plausible decision making skills. The whole film feels like it’s trying too desperately to look cool at a party. The Gambler can find a place next to Poolhall Junkies and Confidence in the listless machismo section of Netflix.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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