Pointless remakes are pretty thick on the ground nowadays, so one shouldn’t be surprised by “The Gambler,” Rupert Wyatt’s new take on Karel Reisz’s 1974 film. Mark Wahlberg takes over for James Caan in a reworking of James Toback’s debut script by William Monaghan, but the transition proves misguided in almost every respect.
Though the setting has been changed from New York City to Los Angeles, the basic arc of the story is the same as it was forty years ago. Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a college professor who’s also not just a gambling addict but one who seems to get a rush out of pushing his luck until he loses big. Informed by his dying grandfather (George Kennedy) to expect no windfall from an inheritance and already deeply—perhaps fatally—in debt to Lee (Alvin Ing), impresario at a swank casino, he borrows from a loan shark named Brand (Michael Kenneth Williams) but instead of starting to pay off Lee, he blows his new stash at the tables too. That leads to his hitting up his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange for the cash he needs to avoid getting a working over, but she icily informs him the bank is now closed. That will lead him to approach Frank (John Goodman), an upper-echelon lender, for the money he needs to continue his dangerous game; Frank warns him, in pseudo-philosophical pronouncements issued in hardboiled macho phrases, that he’s getting himself in very deep, but Jim can’t help himself.
While all this is going on, Jim takes time to romance one of his students, Amy (Brie Larson), whom, during one of his English Lit lecture classes (in which he exhibits a standard of conduct so ludicrously unprofessional that—tenure or no—that it would probably get him canned on the spot), he’s identified as the rare soul (unlike himself) possessed of real writing talent. Amy also just happens to be a casino waitress aware of his off-campus life. But it’s two of her classmates that he’ll ultimately turn to for help with his problems. One is Dexter (Emory Cohen), whom Bennett hails as a great tennis player (and thus, like Amy, one of those fortunate few blessed with a special ability beyond most mere mortals), and the other Lamar (Anthony Kelley), who might be having trouble keeping up his grades but is a star on the basketball court, as the dean (Andre Braugher) reminds Jim. Bennett’s knowledge that Lamar plans to enter the NBA draft early because of a knee problem provides him with a possible out when Brand, who’s keenly interested in the profits of betting right on college athletics, demands repayment of his loan.
“The Gambler” makes a halfhearted effort to generate some suspense about whether Jim can survive the hole he’s dug himself into (and continues to deepen) by counting down the days to his final reckoning with Lee and Frank with on-screen captions, but its real interest is in making a pretentious statement about, one presumes, how living on the edge of destruction is the ultimate rush or some other such existential banality. Worse, it doesn’t even have the courage to close as the original did, in nihilism, instead opting for an expressionist sprint that would have been clichéd at the time of the French New Wave. It certainly doesn’t help that the dialogue sounds like nothing that might come out of the mouths of actual human beings. This is a script composed or pure word processor pulp, delivered by characters that are so distant from reality that they belong on a theatrical stage, where such anti-naturalistic writing is actually welcome, rather than on the screen, where it could work magic when deployed by the likes of Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky but here rings utterly false.
Still, it’s fun to hear some of the actors mouth the lines, especially Goodman, who, sitting shirtless with his bald dome shining in the light, relishes spouting the pomposities Monahan has provided him like a modern-day Buddha. The same can’t be said for Wahlberg, who might have been a driving force behind the project but brings little to the table besides a blind, blank energy and a willingness to spit out his lines while barely moving a facial muscle. Everybody else is pretty much wasted, though Williams is suitably smooth, Lange brings a touch of snooty contempt to her cameo, and Richard Schiff has an amusing scene as a pawnshop owner who just can’t resist haggling. Greig Fraser’s cinematography uses the L.A. locations to decent noirish effect, and the music (the original cuts by Jon Brion and Theo Green supplemented by an eclectic mix of numbers chosen by Wyatt, Green and Clint Bennett) provides some moody variety. But it merely underscores the vacuity of the action it’s commenting upon.
It’s not hard to understand why Wahlberg and friends were drawn to remake “The Gambler,” but they botched the job badly.