Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In Theaters: THE GAMBLER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by William Monahan. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, George Kennedy, Andre Braugher, Anthony Kelley, Emory Cohen, Alvin Ing, Domenick Lombardozzi, Richard Schiff, Simon Rhee. (R, 111 mins)

In remaking the Dostoevsky-inspired, James Toback-scripted, Karel Reisz-directed 1974 cult film THE GAMBLER, screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED) and director Rupert Wyatt (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) initially make a sincere effort to stick to the gritty, character-driven ideals of the source. Many scenes in the early-going are almost defiant in the way they let dialogue-heavy interactions and conversations go on with little concern for audience restlessness and in no hurry at all to move at the quick-cut, short-attention-span pace of most of today's multiplex offerings. In many ways, it's part of a current throwback movement to the 1970s as seen in recent films like THE DROP and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. THE GAMBLER '74 had the rock-solid foundation of James Caan entering the post-GODFATHER pinnacle of his career, all cocksure swagger and Sonny Corleone rage as Ivy League-educated, NYU literature prof Axel Freed, who's in debt to loan sharks to the tune of $44,000. Toback's script was largely autobiographical and THE GAMBLER '14 lacks that personal touch and its '70s aesthetic has a certain artificiality to it as the film goes on (gifted prodigies acting out against suffocating family expectations would be a theme Toback explored further in his brilliant 1978 directorial debut FINGERS). While films like THE DROP and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES have a '70s mindset in the present day, THE GAMBLER '14 strays from its source as it progresses, becoming more beholden to commercial expectations and predictable character arcs, and despite drastically higher stakes thanks to inflation, it never really feels like L.A.-based literature prof and one-and-done novelist Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is in any serious danger.

Hailed as a bold new voice in fiction in 2007, Bennett never got around to writing that second novel and instead berates his students for their lack of inspiration and effort and not possessing the talent to do so anyway. Amy (Brie Larson), his one student with potential, knows his secret life: she's a waitress at a seedy gambling den owned by Korean mobster Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), who staked over $100,000 to Jim, who promptly lost it all in one doomed spin of a roulette wheel. These early scenes establish the purely suicidal self-destruction of the character in the same way as the 1974 film, and both Axel Freed and Jim Bennett seem to be rebelling against their family wealth and privileged upbringing. Wyatt wrings considerable suspense out of intensely stomach-turning scenes of an addicted Jim at a blackjack table, $80,000 on the line, angrily demanding another card when he's already at 18. Of course he loses it all--Jim's only really satisfied when he loses it all, and he seeks out the most dangerously shady people imaginable for extra cash, whether it's powerful crime lord Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) or God-like loan shark Frank (John Goodman, who's terrific). The film opens with Jim visiting his dying grandfather (George Kennedy sighting!), the 17th-richest man in California, who refuses to leave him any money because he needs to build his character. Once Jim is $260,000 in debt to both Mr. Lee and Neville, and turns down a stake from Frank because he refuses to meet Frank's demand of admitting "I am a piece of shit gambler," and "I am not a man," he hits up his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange), who gives him the money, after which he drives to Vegas with Amy and almost immediately blows it all at a blackjack table.

The relationship that develops between Jim and Amy is one of the more problematic elements of Monahan's script. Monahan tries to draw a parallel between Jim and Amy's alcoholic mother by showing that she's inherently drawn to the addicted and the damaged, but at the same time, her actions and decisions never really feel plausible. She knows what kind of guy Jim is and the sorts of people with whom he's entangled--she even works at an illegal casino--but the character as shown is too level-headed and smart to so easily fall for a shit magnet like Jim. It doesn't help that the film loses track of her as it goes on, and Larson (robbed of an Oscar nomination for last year's SHORT TERM 12) is too good for such a muddled and sketchily-written role. Her attraction to Jim would make a lot more sense if Wahlberg was playing the part like Caan played Axel Freed. Where Axel publicly possessed a magnetic sense of indestructible, self-confident bravado no matter how much money he lost, Wahlberg's Jim is disheveled, glum and glowering, with a constant Joe Btfsplk dark cloud hovering over him from the moment he's introduced. Axel Freed tried to make it rain, it blew up in his face, and he defiantly asked for more, while Jim Bennett just shrugs and places another five-figure bet on one hand. Both are committing slow suicide, but Wahlberg's characterization doesn't have the same sense of consequences-be-damned kamikaze fervor, regardless of how good he is in the role. Caan's Axel Freed came off like a dumbass, but he was a dumbass with balls. Wahlberg's Jim Bennett just comes off like a dumbass.

The change in the main character's mindset probably has more to do with Wyatt and Monahan needing to do something different in order to avoid a straight scene-for-scene remake, but all the changes do is put a spotlight on what worked so well in 1974. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the climax, after which Jim has talked one of his students, a star basketball player and guaranteed NBA prospect (Anthony Kelley) to shave points in a game in order to settle his debt with Neville. Reisz and Toback had Axel Freed celebrate by going to the wrong side of town looking for a fight, getting one, and ending the film in an ambiguous, nihilistic fashion that shows there's no limit to his mad quest to take increasingly dangerous risks, essentially gambling himself to death. Wyatt and Monahan, in accordance with THE GAMBLER '14 being a major-studio movie released at Christmas, have to give Jim a crowd-pleasing happy ending. It doesn't gel with the tone of what came before, and Jim's done nothing to really make the audience care about his shot at redemption. On top of that, too much of the film feels like Scorsese-lite, from the DEPARTED-style soliloquizing of the characters to the classic rock soundtrack, with incongruous reggae covers of Pink Floyd's "Time," and "Money," a Billy Bragg version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and Scala & Kolacny Brothers' take on Radiohead's "Creep."

Whatever the extent of THE GAMBLER '14's problems, the performances aren't among them. A scrawny-looking and obviously committed Wahlberg reportedly dropped 60 lbs and does a solid job with an often unplayable role, and while Amy is a woefully underwritten character, the promising Larson still shines--Wyatt gives her a great and very odd little scene where she's doing this strange walk/dance in slo-mo while heading to class and the actress' goofy facial expressions are guaranteed to turn you into a Brie Larson fan; it's a throwaway moment that almost looks like it's edited together from a set of outtakes, but turns into her best moment in the film. THE GAMBLER '14's biggest strengths come from its supporting cast, with Lange getting a couple of devastating scenes as Jim's mother, torn between her disgust with her son and the hole into which he's dug himself, but also remorseful that maybe his upbringing, her shrewdness, and her obsession with wealth are what drove him to be the fuck-up that he is. Goodman sinks his teeth into his role, frequently seen holding court in a steamroom, telling Jim how to play it smart and get himself to a "Fuck you" position in life, and unable to comprehend Jim's story about how he was once up $2.5 million and lost it all on one hand. It's great seeing 89-year-old Kennedy, an Oscar-winner for 1967's COOL HAND LUKE, back on the big screen again, though his prominent billing and his one minute or so of screen time probably indicate he had a larger role at some point. It's also worth noting that veteran character actor Leland Orser's name turns up in the credits but he's never seen--he was cast as a rival lit professor in a subplot that appears to have been completely excised, along with most of Andre Braugher's scenes as the college dean (he has one brief bit talking to Jim in a hallway), all of which point to some eleventh-hour editing still going on shortly before the film's release (Orser is briefly seen in the trailer). As far as remakes go, you can do a lot worse. THE GAMBLER '14 has its strong points, but ultimately, it pales in comparison to THE GAMBLER '74, which still held up beautifully as of a revisit a month or so ago. The original GAMBLER came out 40 years ago and is still held in high regard today.  Will people even remember the remake of THE GAMBLER 40 days from now?

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