The Gambler – The turn of the unfriendliest of cards. (Film Review)
One triumph does not a great director make, as we see in the 2015 remake of the semi-remake The Gambler, a film that should have given director Rupert Wyatt a chance to work more of the magic he performed with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but instead winds up being a soup of a film where best chunks rise to the surface primarily due to Wyatt’s inability to create a cohesive whole from the project. Given The Gambler rises from the well-respected Karel Reisz 1974 version which itself rose from an autobiography that suspiciously reeked of a Dostoyevsky association, the cross pollination looks similar to the Rise of the PLanet of the Apes checkered franchise history, and makes it easy to understand why Wyatt seemed a good choice for the remake, particularly when 1974 version writer James Tobak came out to say the film should never be remade. In the wake of Martin Scorsese’s abandonment complete with a compliant Leonardo de Caprio in tow, 2013 sees Mark Wahlberg show an interest and Wyatt stand up to direct in what has the makings of something that could turn interesting, if not downright awesome. With Jessica Lange and Brie Larson confirmed, and then a 62 year old John Goodman agreeing to appear semi-naked, one can’t help suspect Rupert Wyatt must have felt a recognisable intuitive magic flow through him, as he did (perhaps) the day Andy Serkis agreed to play Caesar.
Then something goes horribly wrong, and it seems to lay at the feet of a truly awful script by the usually reliable William Monahan; a script that sounds like a cross between twitter inspired spirituality and an eighteen year old man/boy trying to be Quentin Tarantino. Add this to Greig Frasers flat, at times desperate cinematography that manages to make an underground gambling ring filled with loan sharks as boring as my living room, and you have a demented canvass that no amount of thickly applied oil will repair. While Foxcatcher’s gunmettle gray wash evoked the sinister, clouded foreboding of the oppressive nature of wealth and the insistence of the wealthy that everyone somehow owes them, in The Gambler the dull browny-grey comes out like a swampy mess, managing to subdue and bury Wyatt’s framing, which at times can be quite interesting. With an inspired cinematographer, the multiple subtleties in the body of the narrative might have framed the excellent performances and hidden the terrible writing some, but unfortunately, the more subtle Fraser plays it, the more we are left to the sillier aspects of The Gambler, such as a a tiresome monologue from Goodman about fuck-you money and a peculiar makeup problem where Wahlberg is often wearing a frosty pink chapstick. The film is abandoned to that oppressive weight (wait) category where suspense is gut-churningly tiresome rather than nail-bitingly exciting.
However, there are some superb performances, and if anything, The Gambler is a film watchers feast for observation when it comes to actors rising above their lines. I’m thinking here of a walk down campus by Brie Larson, Pulps ‘Common People’ blasting through the cinema where caricature and corn meet as a brilliant actress takes what should have been a terrible scene and under superb direction, perfectly embodies the naive joyful silliness of the recently outed overbright student. It’s a terrific performance, an absurd sunshine rollicking through her, posited perfectly against Jessica Lange’s jaded sour faced mother, who also gives a striking performance (the women are much better than the men here) as Jim Bennett’s (Wahlberg) long-suffering mother who can’t help embody some measure of blame for her son’s addiction disease – as mothers are want to do. Seeing Lange on the screen in The Gambler reminds us we see far too little of her these days, as she wanders inside herself, vacillating between acerbic tired parent, privileged wealthy queen of the manor and helpless desperate mother. There was talk of an award nomination for her, but like all the good stuff in The Gambler, the performance is buried under too many fuck ups.
Mark Wahlberg brings an interesting twist to the James Caan machismo of the first film, playing his role as sleazy overprivaledged white male struggling under the weight of his own awesomeness with some transparent flair, reminding us (again despite horrible dialogue) this is a film about the pressures of writing – not gambling. It’s this performance that wanders back toward the Dostoyevsky original, the self-satisfied male who uses self deprecating speeches to hide his fear under masculine bravado. His gambling as heroism faux self-destruction has a crystalline sparkle to its silliness that comes through in the fancy suits and aging handsomeness, and its his inability to convincingly portray his own story that carries the film back to Dostoyevsky’s point. It’s the gaze that lets him down here. As an audience we are directed to a seriousness that Scorsese would have (tried and failed) to inject into a de Caprio performance, but the role is better transformed back to Dostoyevsky himself and the filming style better moved toward an existentialist perspective, as Wyatt achieves with moments like the Brie Larson campus walk. Therefore the audience is exhausted with their efforts at trying to make the ludicrous substantial instead of trusting the film to take us where it may. In film the audience is not co-creater (as it is in theatre or reading for example) they are passive recipient, so the direction is responsible for the trajectory of the project. Wyatt is too maligned here, too side swiped for his gems to catch us and hold us.
The Gambler is perhaps not one to spend your dollars on at the box office, but it is DVD worthy – if mostly for the great performances from the two female leads and the very interesting spectacle of John Goodman in his naked glory.
Oh – a brief word about the music. It’s cheese on a stick done in the most delightful ways. A highlight of this film for me was watching Mark Wahlberg running to M83’s ‘Outro’ – it’s a great ham and cheese soundtrack.