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There’s nothing wrong with creating a story with an unlikable protagonist. In fact, it’s a great narrative challenge for a writer to take a hero who is rather unpleasant and make the audience appreciate their journey anyway. The key is the transition: the lead can’t just be a nihilistic asshole for the entire story and expect people to care about them. It’s this great sin that’s found in the heart of Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler, and is ultimately what really prevents the film from connecting or ever taking off.
In this remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film of the same name, Mark Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a former author/literature professor/gambling addict/all-around douchebag – and while credit must be given to Wahlberg for a committed performance, it’s the character who winds up selling him short. Coming from a wealthy family and having a background as a successful author, Bennett constantly and unapologetically comes across as nothing more than a petulant child as he digs himself further and further into debt with more and more dangerous men. Even beyond his propensity for throwing money down the toilet, he manages to be a tool in the classroom as well, giving long, pretentious, self-indulgent diatribes where he tells his students that they can either be geniuses or just not bother. You can’t respect his attitude; you can’t respect his behavior; and it’s even hard to respect his intelligence.
Giving the movie a sense of urgency, The Gambler is set over the course of seven days as Bennett tries to collect the quarter-million dollars he owes to multiple different loan sharks. But the problem is that there is no real pressure as a result of Jim Bennett’s extreme unlikability. Not only is it hard to care if he undergoes some physical harm (he can honestly use a good ass-whupping), it’s also hard to muster up any emotion when he succeeds (other than perhaps a mild pang of contempt). Charming and smart as the character played by Brie Larson is, you honestly want to see her get as far away as possible from Bennett, but the movie has the exact opposite sensibilities.
It’s a real shame that Bennett can’t muster up being a better person, because Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan really does a great job setting up dynamic, if not slightly stereotypical, antagonists for the hero to face off against. As loan shark Neville Baraka a.k.a. the King of Spades, Michael K. Williams is one of the most charismatic presences in the movie. He plays with a vibe that simultaneously makes him seem both friendly and threatening – the kind of guy who can be smiling ear to ear one moment, and deathly serious and holding a knife to your throat the next. In contrast, John Goodman’s Frank falls into the bathhouse-attending, old-school gangster mold, but it works thanks to the actor’s commanding presence – which sells the character from the very first frame he appears.
Stylistically, Rupert Wyatt gets to show his chops, moving beyond his excellent CGI-enhanced work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and demonstrating a good bit of flair in the dark drama. Reaching back to the James Cann-starring original, there is certainly a degree of ‘70s style mixed into the director’s palette, and there is a good implementation of symbolism as well (like Jim Bennett repeatedly taking baths and trying to keep his head above water). The Gambler also has a rather fantastic decades-spanning soundtrack that Wyatt uses well in both diegetic and non- diegetic capacities (though his use of the eerie choral cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was immediately reminiscent of The Social Network, proving that not enough time has passed just yet for that song to be used in another movie).
There are so many effective pieces that work in The Gambler that you the film around them to hold up as a whole, but the truth is that its central flaw of having an unwatchable protagonist is simply too massive to ignore and sours everything that comes as an extension of it. There is a lot to like in Rupert Wyatt’s film, but not nearly enough to make it an enjoyable movie-watching experience.