Some casting decisions should never happen. Shaq as Tinkerbell. Hmm. Actually that might be fantastic, scratch that. But any role where Mark Wahlberg gets to wear a trucker hat—it’s a good role for him to play.
However, Mark Wahlberg as a professor of literature? Discussing nihilistic philosophy? Just no. How about as a professor with a gambling addiction? Still no. Gambling addiction with a trucker hat? Yes, absolutely. But the egregiously miscast “The Gambler” is not that movie.
Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) teaches English Literature and gambles too much. He’s also a verbal-abuse-type professor. He shames his class, telling them they should never, ever indulge dreams of being writers.
All except the pretty blonde in the front row (Brie Larson). Only she has talent, according to professor gambler. There are a few words for this kind of guy, none of which will be uttered here.
But maybe he’s just being complimentary due to the fact that blondie is on to him: She waitresses at the same down-low gambling establishment he furtively blows huge wads of cash in. In fact, this incessant cash-wad blowing eventually lands him in $240,000 worth of debt, with seven days to pay it off.
Hat in hand, yet trailing yards of entitlement and spoiled-brattiness, he sarcastically bows and scrapes before his wealthy, disgusted mother for a handout. Rejection.
He tries a mid-level street grifter (Michael Kenneth Williams) Reee-jection.
Finally he goes to an enormous, shaved-head, Russian-bath-frequenting loan shark (John Goodman, best thing about the movie) who lectures him about getting this far into debt.
Despite his dangerous reputation, this predatory-lending Jabba the Hut seems to develop an avuncular fondness for the insouciant, wisecracking professor. He likes the prof’s double-birds-to-the-world attitude.
So professor blackjack gets his money. A big wad. Which he promptly blows again. But the drastic degree of his downward debt-spiral doesn’t even dent his denial.
It’s around about here we sense that professor roll-the-dice is not into the living-large, lavish lifestyle. He doesn’t seem to be getting high. He’s bent on beating himself up. Verbally beats up his students, loathes his life—what to make of this guy?
As Jabba the loan shark says, “You’re the perfect example of how someone can start off with no problems and end up with all of them.”
Maybe he despises how spoiled he was raised. Maybe he’s engaging in a self-imposed, gambling version of the 1970s, strip-you-down-build-you-back-up EST course, trying to un-enmesh himself from his past.
And maybe it’s the combined difficulty of trying to feel compassion for the “pain” of a silver-spoon ingrate who wants to throw it all away (and might secretly enjoy getting roughed up by goons), with an actor playing largely outside his power-alley range, that makes this film slightly yawn-worthy.
That said, there is a tangible, if slight, thrill in having “The Gambler” boil down to one last gamble, while the loan jackals and hyenas lick their chops in the shadows.
“The Gambler” would appear to be designed primarily to showcase Wahlberg’s acting. It’s been a long time since former rapper Marky Mark modeled Calvin Klein underwear on Times Square billboards; he’s a bona fide Hollywood mogul-millionaire now. What’s missing? Thespian accolades.
Wahlberg’s clearly shrewd, he’s clearly got uncommon showbiz savvy; one wonders why he’s not aware of his range. “The Gambler” is a card-thriller, but it’s no “Rounders.” Matt Damon in “Rounders” would have crushed this role. Wahlberg dropped out of school early. Damon attended Harvard. Talk about a strong suit.
Wahlberg’s the producer of HBO’s “Entourage,” based on his own personal entourage experiences. Probably Wahlberg’s own posse wasn’t about to tell him “The Gambler” only showcases his weaknesses. Some casting decisions should never happen.
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Release date: Dec. 25
3 stars out of 5