'The Gambler': AFI Fest Review

 A slick remake of the gritty original is marked by sharp performances

Rupert Wyatt's remake of the 1974 original stars Mark Wahlberg as a literature professor with a gambling problem

The Gambler is a slick and efficient remake of the superior 1974 original that starred James Caan as a college professor with personal demons he dealt with by tempting fate at the gaming tables. Here, Mark Wahlberg embraces self-loathing and personal free fall in a cool but perversely intriguing look at a man who not only walks on the wild side, but seems to want to take up residence there. Not quite the full-on downer that the original was, this Paramount release should score a decent take commercially.

Fully four decades after producing the original, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, joined by other colleagues, are back for a second try with a story that did not prove a hit at the time but remains one of Paramount's stellar titles of its great early 1970s period. James Toback, whose screenplay for the original was his first, is credited here as an executive producer along with current writer William Monahan, who has moved the action from the goombah-dominated streets of New York to the more elegant, Asian-run gambling salons of Southern California, even as he has wisely retained the schizophrenic brainy-base personality split of the central character.

Bluntly told by his wealthy, dying grandfather (George Kennedy) in the opening scene that he'll inherit nothing from him, Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) quickly establishes himself as the reckless sort prone to risking everything. As he runs up winnings at a swank coastal gambling spa run by a Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), Jim never sets anything aside, doubling his earnings at blackjack until, inevitably, he loses everything, which may be what he most deeply craves.

In the blink of an eye, Jim owes Mr. Lee $240,000, and his situation gets worse when he is staked to $20,000 by downtown loan shark Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) to help him climb back, and he blows through that too. Jim doesn't want to rely for help on his steely Beverly Hills mother (an excellent Jessica Lange), whose wealth may be a major reason why he imagines he'll always be rescued from trouble, but she refuses to help — until, that is, she takes him to the bank and gives him everything he needs.

The true depth of Jim's recklessness only becomes clear in the wake of his angry mother's largesse, but then the man's existence generally reflects a perplexing duality. This inveterate risk-seeker, who is drawn to the low life, holds down a day job as an associate professor of literature. With his students he's boldly confrontational, mixing among them in the lecture hall while ostensibly teaching Shakespeare to provoke them in sometimes rudely personal ways.

Three students, all high achievers, interest him: Dexter (Emory Cohen), a top tennis player with an unassuming personality; Lamar (Anthony Kelley), a stellar basketball player who, although only a junior, is leaning toward turning pro now; and Amy (Brie Larson), whom Jim singles out as the only brilliant writer in the class. “If you're not a genius, don't bother,” Jim proclaims, noting his own promising but unremarkable first novel published some years back.

This challenge to Amy has the desired effect that Jim might have privately intended — it piques her interest in him, to the point that they head off together on a desert excursion that ends up, unfortunately, in some Indian casinos, where Jim's worst instincts once again assume the upper hand, sending him to a new low of jeopardy. The expansion of the female lead from the mere tag-along played with offbeat charm by Lauren Hutton in the original to a student who blithely announces her intention to ignite an “inappropriate relationship” with her teacher is one of the few upgrades registered in Monahan's script. The screenplay is otherwise notable for a couple of brashly colorful monologues written for the grandiloquently philosophical underworld figure played with worldly-wise articulation by John Goodman.

As the days count down, the gambler is forced to do something he would not otherwise consider, which is to lean on the vulnerable Lamar to alter the outcome of a basketball game. Even then, it's not over yet, and Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt have contrived a resolution that is rather more audience-friendly than the bloodily bleak one director Karel Reisz served up in the original.

In nearly every scene, Wahlberg carries off the central role with what could be called determined elan. Bluntly, sometimes viciously frank, Jim spares no one in his circle, beginning with himself, and his uncensored talk with his chosen students stands in sharp contrast with his limited ability to communicate clearly with his grandfather and mother. His gambling compulsion goes beyond addiction into something congenital; the causes behind it are not precisely spelled out but clearly have to do with severe family issues and emotional warp. All the same, Jim remains to some extent an unreachable character, someone you pity or shake your head over rather than empathize with.

The supporting roles are well etched, from Goodman's turn as a Buddha of the underworld and Lange's sharp portrait of an outwardly tough mother to smart work from Larson as a bright and bold student, Kelley as the talented but questioning hoops star and Williams as a multifaceted and eloquent crime figure.

Craft contributions are strong, although the music and songs interspersed between scenes feel too lightweight and ephemeral in light of the matter at hand.

Production: Chartoff Winkler Productions, Closest to the House

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, George Kennedy, Jessica Lange, Richard Schiff, Emory Cohen, Domenick Lombardozzi, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Screenwriter: William Monahan, based on the film written by James Toback

Producers: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, David Winkler

Executive producers: David Crockett, James Toback, William Monahan

Director of photography: Greig Fraser

Production designer: Keith P. Cunningham

Costume designer: Jacqueline West

Editor: Pete Beaudreau

Music: Jon Brion, Theo Green

Casting: Sheila Jaffe

Rated R, 112 minutes