Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is the scion of a family with the sort of generational wealth that makes $260,000 seem like walking around money. When his gambling debts hit that much, owing money to a pair of dangerous loan sharks (Michael Kenneth Williams, Alvin Ing), the literature professor has to scramble to get that sort of money while avoiding some of the seedier characters (John Goodman) that inhabit this illicit world of underground, illegal gaming. Thus follows the tale of the 2014 remake of The Gambler, a slightly updated version of the 1974 version that starred James Caan.
The film, a modern look at the seamy side of illegal gaming, is a near flawless look at the world of illegal gaming (and the mind of the degenerate gambler) except for one thing. It might have the worst possible casting for its main character that we’ve seen from a 2014 film, particularly in the prestige season of the year, because Wahlberg can’t pull off the “rich kid who’s profoundly unhappy with wealth” that Bennett desperately requires.
Wahlberg, who famously never graduated high school and had a substantial arrest record as a child, is a street kid. This is a role designed for an actor with at a minimum more elevated surroundings a child. This is more of a role that would’ve fit someone like Robert Downey Jr. than Wahlberg and it shows. He wears a suit throughout the film almost with a disdain, of not being comfortable in it because he’s never worn it for anything but weddings and funerals. It’s not of someone who has worn it so long they wish to wear something else, but can’t because of circumstance. Bennett the character works because he’s someone who wears a suit because he always has, since he was an adult, because his family’s wealth has dictated certain behaviors. Wahlberg wears it with a disdain of someone who never wears one unless it’s for special occasions.
He’s also a bad fit, acting wise, as Wahlberg’s best roles are the ones where he’s not playing an intellectual. It rings hollow for him as it’s hard to buy him as someone who’s studied literature at the highest levels. Wahlberg is at his best when he plays a more blue collar role; this is too white collar, too pretentious for an actor who’s best work are roles that eschew that. This was a passion project for him, so one can see why he’d want to take the role in a film that could still earn him an Oscar nomination, but this is the sort of role he’s going to fail at for all the wrong reasons. He’s got a ton of talent but his strength is playing the guy who could be fixing your car, not teaching your children about Shakespeare.
Wyatt does a beautiful thing, taking us into the sad world of the degenerate gambler, and for that Wahlberg is a good guy to explore this world. It would be easy to let Wahlberg be a star, and have a quirky problem of being a gambler, but Wyatt really lets us go well past the point of wanting to like Wahlberg despite his faults. He’s a degenerate gambler always looking to win big … even after he’s up inordinate amounts of money. We don’t even feel a pity for him after a brilliant opening sequence; Bennett is a guy who seemingly has a deathwish to go alongside a profound and pronounced gambling problem. This is a slimy world and the extents he’s willing to go to save himself, but all the while still having that urge to go for the big score when the ability to walk away is right in front of him.
The Gambler dies on the vine, despite everything about it working otherwise, because of this profound miscasting.
Director: Rupert Wyatt Writer: William Monahan, based on the 1974 film by James Toback Notable Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman, Anthony Kelley