The Gambler is one of those films you really want to dislike while sitting through it, however once the credits roll you walk out feeling strangely satisfied with the result.
Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a literary professor with an extensive gambling problem. He bets big to win big, but his bad habits have placed him in a hole that he now can’t get out of. He struggles with an existential crisis all the while he and those near to him, are at risk of bodily harm (and worse) by those seeking to collect what Jim owes.
It’s hard to feel sorry for Jim, considering he is already well-off but still can’t help going down a path of self-destruction by lending money from criminals that he knows he can’t pay back. We can only feel disappointed in the actions he takes and while we do want him to get out of his predicament, the character does not make it easy for us to feel that way.
Brie Larson plays Wahlberg’s student and love interest Amy. It’s a bit of an uneasy feeling, seeing a young aspiring literary ‘genius’ falling for a mess of a character like Jim and it is not entirely believable. This again could be due to the fact that Jim is just overall unlikeable, as Larson is an excellent actress that does the best with what she’s given, which is not too much in this case.
Props can be given to John Goodman’s performance as Frank, another gangster/loan shark that Jim approaches a few times to borrow money. While he doesn’t have a long screen presence, the character is really well written and Goodman plays him superbly, offering some of the best lines in the film. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about Michael Kenneth Williams in the role of Neville – another gangster. His turn as Chalky White in the TV series Boardwalk Empire proves that he can pull off a role like this, but like Larson, his character is just not that well-written and does not come off in any way intimidating considering he’s pretty much the one Jim needs to be concerned about when his life is on the line.
It seems as though the supporting characters in The Gambler are really only there to (conveniently) move the plot forward, which is a shame because there was plenty of potential to develop them, and their relationship with Jim further. Instead the film focuses on Jim as he wallows in his own misery.
Director Rupert Wyatt does a good job with the story and nails the gambling scenes and the pace of the film. All the negatives aside, the film keeps you hooked from start to finish. The gambling scenes are especially intense and Wyatt knows when to change the beat of the film – just when you start to feel edgy that the film is going nowhere, Wyatt interjects another scene which draws your full attention, getting you interested again.
Mark Wahlberg dropped 61lbs for his role as Jim Bennett, going from 198lbs to 137lbs by doing a diet consisting of mostly liquid food and vegetables and a workout of strictly cardio.