It’s lazy of me to re-post a review only 40 days after the initial but I’ve done lazier things on a drizzly Sunday while sitting in a cafe. Rupert Wyatt‘s The Gambler is opening four days hence (on Thursday, 12.25) and I can’t think of anything else to post before driving into the city in the light snow and rain…a not-very-friendly December day.
“I know what this sounds like but Rupert Wyatt, William Monahan and Mark Wahlberg‘s The Gambler isn’t as interesting or eloquent as Karel Riesz, James Toback and James Caan‘s The Gambler (’74). It deals faster, flashier cards, but it misses the meditative soulful aspects of the Reisz-Toback version, which is partly to say it takes no pleasure in occasional wins and the power and glory of that.
“The new Gambler is almost entirely about staring into the abyss. Character-wise it delivers a relentless obstinacy and a smug-punk attitude in Mark Wahlberg‘s gambling-addicted character, and story-wise it furnishes a constant cycle of losing and doubling down and then losing a whole lot more, and then borrowing from ugly Peter to pay even-more-terrible Paul and so on. And it blows off those charming tidbits of Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s philosophy that lent a certain spiritual élan to the ’74 version.
“This sounds like I’m going ‘oh, the older version is better because everything older is better’ but it’s not that. The 40 year-old Gambler is a very fine film but it’s not perfect. My attitude going into last night’s AFI Fest screening was that the newbie might be a bump-up. All Monahan had to do, I told myself, was take what was jolting and mesmerizing about the ’74 version and then build upon it…all he had to do was reach into his soul and add a few things, and in so doing inspire Wahlberg and Wyatt and make a better film.
“That didn’t happen. They made another film, which is basically a smart, ultra-cynical jizz-whizz thing.
“What Monahan’s screenplay and the film are basically saying is ‘we’re doing two things here — we’re ignoring a good part of what was sobering and haunting about the ’74 version, and at the same time we’re going to skate figure eights around it and generally kick ass with the usual stylistic flourishes that everyone wallows in these days.’
“This is not to say The Gambler is a bad film. It just should have (and definitely could have) been a lot better.
“The ’74 Gambler was an atmospheric, ground-level New York thing for the most part with a side-trip to Vegas. It felt unpretentiously real and plain in the way that all of the better films of that era felt. You could almost smell the sweat and the car exhaust and the clams and the pizza. Gambler is a whiz-bang Los Angeles juice-packer with several interesting lines and characters, but it doesn’t feel connected to anything except a desire to stick a finger into an electric socket to see what it feels like and maybe get a nice “whoa!” or, you know, maybe die of a stopped heart. Nihilism, baby.
“Monahan’s script contains one classic line about artistic struggle that Wahlberg delivers in his first classroom-lecture scene — “If you’re not a genius, don’t bother.” And John Goodman’s loan shark (the role more or less played by Paul Sorvino in the’74 version) delivers a great ‘fuck you’ speech in the third act. It’s basically a riff about how life is much, much better when you have enough ownership and financial security to say ‘fuck you’ to any offer you don’t like. The crowd laughed heartily when Goodman said that United States of America ‘is basically built upon fuck you,’ or words to that effect.
“The ’74 version waited until the last act to put its main observation on the table, which is that most hardcore gamblers are looking to lose and sometimes be punished to boot. The last shot was of Caan looking at his face in a grimy bathroom after he’s been cut by a pimp’s knife. But the new Gambler offers this observation early on, almost as a so-whatter. And it uses what feels to me like a phony, studio-mandated third-act payoff about Wahlberg renouncing his obsessive habit (which is bullshit — gamblers have to manage their addiction like alcoholics) for the love of a good blonde (Brie Larson). By this I mean a smart but essentially submissive lady who’s also his student, and who serves no real function in the film except to be fetching and hang around.
“Wahlberg plays the cynical, hard-bitten Jim Bennett with a certain obsessive rapaholic quality, but it’s not an Oscar-level performance because you don’t feel anything for the guy — he’s looking to lose so badly and conveys no satisfaction or interest, even, in the occasional win that viewer indifference is the only response. The real star is the under-used Goodman. As noted Larson has been handed the same kind of arm-candy girlfriend role that Lauren Hutton played 40 years ago, which she does a decent job with but to what end? As Wahlberg’s rich mom, Jessica Lange seems overly brittle and testy with very little in the way of what most of us would recognize as common maternal currents.
“And the role of the protagonist’s rich grandfather, wonderfully played by Morris Carnovsky in the original, has been all but erased in the newbie. George Kennedy plays him for three or four minutes in the opening scene and then dies, and in so doing Monahan-Wyatt sacrifice a great poolside scene in the ’74 version in which the grandfather tells Caan, whom he regards as a man of thought and letters, to cut off his relationship with Hutton as ‘she’s not for you…she’s for a clubman, a playboy…not for a scholar and man of virtue.’
“What is the point of making a movie about the psychology of gambling without getting into the highs? What gambler doesn’t live for ‘the heat’? I would never go there but I’ve seen and learned enough about gambling to know about the absolute rhapsody of being on a streak. So what’s the point of exploring gambling without allowing the viewer to taste this, to sample triumph over ruin because of an obstinate belief in a non-logical outcome? Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s line about two plus two sometimes equalling five if the player wills it…how could that not be part of the scheme here?
“In the ’74 film Caan’s Axel Freed, paraphrasing Dostoevky’s “Notes From Underground“, explains to his students that the free will to choose or reject the logical as well as the illogical is what makes mankind human. ‘Reason satisfies man’s rational requirements,’ Caan says. ‘Desire, on the other hand, encompasses everything. Desire is life.’
“During the post-screening q & a (which went on way too long and felt like one of those Santa Barbara Film Festival tributes, complete with a reel celebrating Wahlberg’s career highlights going back to the mid ’90s) Wahlberg said he recently showed his Gambler to Caan and that Caan had given his blessing. Caan may have done that, but he did so at least partly out of politeness or…you know, choosing the path of least resistance. Where would be the upside be in Caan telling Wahlberg, ‘Well, you know…it’s okay…you got some things right…it’s not too bad…you gave it hell and…whatever, it is what it is’?