[Screen It]


(2014) (Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange) (R)

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Drama: A college professor thinks he can gamble his way out of his huge gambling debt, but his addiction to that, lack of common sense, and continuation of borrowing more money from the wrong people puts him in harm's way.
Jim Bennett (MARK WAHLBERG) is an English lit professor in Los Angeles who spends his off hours gambling. While he occasionally gets hot at blackjack and roulette, he never knows when to stop and thus ends up losing everything he gained and then some. As a result, he now owes $240,000 to Mr. Lee (ALVIN ING) who runs an underground gambling operation where one of Jim's students, Amy Phillips (BRIE LARSON), works as a waitress.

While he tries to impart wisdom to her and other students in his classroom, including highly ranked tennis player Dexter (EMORY COHEN) and soon to turn pro basketball player Lamar Allen (ANTHONY KELLEY), he's not smart about his gambling or where he gets his money to keep playing. His latest $50,000 comes from loan shark Neville Baraka (MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS) who's fully aware of Jim's habits and track record.

So is Frank (JOHN GOODMAN), a dangerous mobster who doles out free advice to the professor but cautions against borrowing any money from him lest he deal with the ugly consequences of not repaying the loan. Also unhappy about the potential of loaning money to Jim is his mother, Roberta (JESSICA LANGE), who has family money to do so, but hates her son's addiction. With time running out to repay Mr. Lee, Jim does what he can to get his hands on more money that he intends to use to gamble his way out of debt.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I'm not much of a gambler, although it often feels like a roll of the dice when I drive around D.C.'s beltway and put my life on the line. Sure, I'll occasionally play one of the national lotteries if the pot is insanely huge, and I might give one or two pulls on the appendage of a one-armed bandit if I find myself in a casino, but that's about it. I realize the odds are stacked against me and that unless one is rich or just wanting to have some fun, it's a great way to waste money and a generally lousy way to make a living.

Accordingly, my family doesn't need to worry about me ever racking up some huge gambling debt. That's unlike a mother who's sickened by her college professor son who has an obvious gambling addiction. Despite having enough family money to take care of him, she hates his behavior as she knows full well that he can't help himself from chasing lost money with other bad money.

That tale unfolds in the appropriately titled "The Gambler" and stars Mark Wahlberg at the title character and Jessica Lange as his disappointed mother. The film is a remake of the 1974 movie of the same name and generally the same plot and starring James Caan as the protagonist.

I don't recall every seeing the pic (I was 10 when it came out), so any sort of comparisons between that and this one are a moot point. And, as always, a film should stand or fall on its own merits rather than from any comparison to some earlier incarnation of the same story.

That being said, this is yet another end of 2014 release that's decent, but not great. It looks terrific thanks to the shot selection by cinematographer Greig Fraser ("Zero Dark Thirty," "Foxcatcher") and features solid performances from Michael Kenneth Williams and John Goodman as charismatic but scary loan sharks you wouldn't want to pass in the grocery store, let alone borrow thousands of dollars from them.

Yet, at least for yours truly, the pic doesn't delve deep enough into the psyche of Wahlberg's protagonist, an English professor during the day and a high stakes gambling addict at night. There are hints of what makes Jim Bennett tick, whether that's from his interactions with his wealthy mom (Lange) or his students. They include Emory Cohen as a highly ranked tennis player, Anthony Kelley as a top-rated college basketball star who's thinking of turning pro, and Brie Larson as a wallflower who the professor deems to be a brilliant writer. He preaches that if you're not a genius at your chosen or given talent, don't bother, speaking from experience as a not particularly successful author.

I guess we're supposed to take from that his attempts to be a gambling genius, but he's not that good, at least on a consistent or profitable basis. Then again, it's somewhat hinted at that perhaps he has a death wish of some sort (or at least a masochistic bent) and uses his risky gambling as a means of bringing about pain or perhaps an end to his existence.

Wahlberg is good at playing him on the surface, but I wanted more and screenwriter William Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt simply don't give him the opportunity to go digging. The same holds true for some sort of budding romance between him and Larson's character, while the mother-son relationship also feels a bit shortchanged.

The same holds true for the way in which the professor gets himself out of his hole. While I wasn't expecting something as complex as the casino raid in "Ocean's Eleven," the opportunistic way he extracts himself from trouble doesn't exactly ring "genius" from a storytelling perspective.

Nor does the overall film. It's easy enough to watch, but it didn't engage me any more than watching some high roller do his or her thing at a casino with thousands on the line. It's interesting to behold in the moment, but that's about it. "The Gambler" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 4, 2014 / Posted December 25, 2014

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