The Gambler is embarrassing. It’s trying, and it’s trying so hard, to be an effective character study, but in the attempt can’t even manage to be… anything, really. It’s a film that fails to be, something that can’t even be said to be happening in front of you — more that it passes right through the viewer like a ghost. It’s fitting that this is technically the fifth movie adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler (though officially a remake of the 1974 film), as it feels thoroughly before.
Mark Wahlberg plays English professor (Stop laughing. Come on, stop. Look, he can do non-goonish roles. Remember I Heart Huckabees? And… um… The Lovely Bones?) Jim Bennett, who moonlights as a high-stakes gambler. He’s very skilled at scoring tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single evening, but not too great at knowing when to stop, so he frequently loses it all. This habit has landed him deep in debt with two different gangsters, and he has one week to pay up. The Gambler takes place over that week, during which he does not too much gambling but plenty of futzing around, teaching, and romancing with his student Amy (Brie Larson).
Most of this movie is one scene, repeated over and over: a character confronts Jim over who he is and how he gets that way, Jim defiantly declares that he is who he is, and an argument escalates to gravelly-voiced threats (if he’s up against a gangster), a shouting match (if he’s with family), or a halfhearted shrug (if he’s with students). It’s perfectly all right for a film to forego any traditional plot, but something has to fill that vacuum.
There’s nothing here to further illuminate Jim as a character — he’s perfectly comprehensible from early on, and doesn’t change one whit for 90% of the movie. Endless repetition on a theme does not equal a rumination on said theme. In the process of doing so, The Gambler frustratingly wastes Larson (the love interest whose sole purpose for existing is to eventually be threatened by the gangsters), John Goodman (as a no-shit-taking mob boss! That should be great!), Michael Kenneth Williams (who basically plays an Omar Little who got to grow older and make bank, which isn’t the worst thing), Jessica Lange (who probably comes out of the movie looking the best, as Jim’s constantly aggrieved mother), and more talented character actors.
Massively redundant scenes of mobsters threatening Jim pass the baton back and forth with interminable sequences set in the classroom (even by the standards of movie teachers, he’s a bad one). The Gambler only truly comes alive towards the end, when Jim decides to fight for his life and goes about setting up dominoes in the hope that they fall in his favor. This suggests that the film would have been far better off playing itself as a straight thriller, rather than aiming for some kind of profundity. A gambling pun, such as one stressing that you should avoid “taking a chance” on this movie, might go well here, but this movie didn’t try, so why should I?