Movies You Might Have Missed: The Gambler

Title: The Gambler
Release Date: 2014
Rating: R
Length: 111 minutes
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman
Language: English
Country: USA

If I’m being honest, The Gambler isn’t a great movie. Heck, it might not be a good movie. So why is it in this list? Because of a couple great characters and a handful of great scenes. And I like it a lot and it’s my list. There’s good stuff here, but somehow it all ends up less than the sum of its parts. So it goes.

It is, in fact, a remake of a ’70s movie of the same name. Not having seen the original, I can’t tell you how similar or not they are. Here Mark Wahlberg plays a college professor with a gambling problem. His problem is so severe that it’s probably more accurate to say that his despair has manifested in suicidal gambling habits.

Time passing isn’t very clear, so one doesn’t know if this began with the death of his grandfather in the opening scene or antedates it. He gets into debt both with the Korean mob who run his preferred illegal gambling den and a serious black gangster played by Michael Kenneth Williams. Eventually he visits a third vicious underworld figure, a loan shark played by John Goodman.

Goodman steals his scenes because his dialogue is so well written. His meditations on the value of “f*** you” is particularly good: “A wise man’s life is built on ‘f*** you’.” And this is really the strength of the film. Brie Larson is fine as the brilliant student who spurs Wahlberg to a renewed interest in life, Jessica Lange is fine as his loving and bemused mother, and even Wahlberg is fine as the tortured soul at the center of it all.

But we’re really there for Williams surprisingly cultured and aspirational gangster. We’re in for Goodman’s rough-hewn, modern folk-wisdom and uncompromising vision of what it means to be a man. Most of all, however, we’re here for Wahlberg’s 10 minute near-monologue on the nature of genius and the idiocy of thinking that everyone is capable of greatness.

Somehow, all these great parts and scenes fail to cohere into a great movie. When you’re done, and you cast your mind back, you’ll likely remember portions with affection, but the whole will feel disappointing. It may be less than the sum of its parts, but such parts!

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