“The Gambler” Review: Mark Wahlberg showcasing a profound portrayal of self-loathing.

In this version, the distinctive aspect of the film, even more pronounced than in Karel Reisz’s 1974 adaptation featuring James Caan, is Mark Wahlberg’s character, Jim Bennett, who possesses minimal interest in the extravagant lifestyle typically associated with high-rolling gamblers. The fleeting moments of excitement experienced when fortune favors Bennett, though infrequent, are left to…

In this version, the distinctive aspect of the film, even more pronounced than in Karel Reisz’s 1974 adaptation featuring James Caan, is Mark Wahlberg’s character, Jim Bennett, who possesses minimal interest in the extravagant lifestyle typically associated with high-rolling gamblers. The fleeting moments of excitement experienced when fortune favors Bennett, though infrequent, are left to the viewer’s interpretation. The film does not focus on the allure of addiction. Instead, Bennett is a man driven by a purpose: he must reduce himself to nothingness in the hope of rebuilding his life, assuming he survives.

Contrary to the film’s title, Bennett frequently emphasizes that he does not consider himself a gambler. He may be grappling with suicidal thoughts or perhaps is merely an affluent, disgruntled individual. With a background of wealth, privilege, and education, he despises himself. By day, he lectures college students on nihilism as a literature professor, bombarding them with monologues penned by screenwriter William Monahan, who supplies Wahlberg with substantial blocks of text reflecting the agony of mediocrity. Only three students in his class are aware of Bennett’s existence beyond the lecture hall. Among them is Dexter (Emory Cohen), an exceptional tennis player who tutors Bennett’s millionaire mother (Jessica Lange). Another is Amy (Brie Larson), a working-class waitress at an underground gambling establishment, whom Bennett claims to be the only person, aside from himself, capable of writing exceptionally. Lastly, there’s Lamar (Anthony Kelley), the star basketball player whose lack of interest in literature leads to a friendship that may offer Bennett his sole chance at survival.

Parallel to this trio of individuals are three distinct men who sense Bennett’s desperation. He owes over $200,000 to Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the owner of a gambling ring, as well as a moderately sized con artist (Michael Kenneth Williams) and a formidable loan shark portrayed by John Goodman. Goodman’s character, Frank, makes his entrance in a Greek bathhouse, his ample physique overflowing from beneath his robes as he expounds a harsh economic philosophy, which, when stripped of its profanity, reveals a semblance of wisdom. In a film teeming with menacing characters, Frank stands out as the most terrifying, yet paradoxically, he is the only one who dispenses advice. Despite his bluster, there appears to be a hint of genuine concern for Bennett, who happens to be the grandson of an industrialist from an era characterized by unparalleled American exceptionalism. Goodman’s extended cameo is reminiscent of Ned Beatty’s memorable performance in “Network,” and his scenes are among the most exhilarating in the film.

The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of a ticking clock, but it remains uncertain whether Bennett truly desires to extricate himself from his predicament and repay these men. Amidst the weighty monologues and the eclectic musical cues, there is an underlying understanding that Bennett yearns to challenge their collective bluffs. They come to realize that threatening him or his family will not yield results, but targeting his newfound friends, particularly Amy, might spur some action. While presenting the love of a young, brilliant woman as a catalyst to abandon his death wish may appear cliché, the film intentionally embraces an air of grandiosity and metaphorical symbolism. It even dedicates an entire sequence to dissecting Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.”

Without Wahlberg’s explosive performance and the idiosyncratic dialogue, “The Gambler” might leave viewers contemplating, “Why not just overdose on sleeping pills and be done with it?” One could argue that it would be nobler to donate the family’s wealth to Médecins Sans Frontières rather than squandering it on a game of blackjack. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable allure and cinematic virtue in reducing an entire film to one pivotal roll of the dice while the vultures encircle overhead. This downward spiral of self-imposed despair feels like the final chapter in a trilogy of American financial darkness, following “Killing Them Softly” and “The Counselor.” While “The Gambler” may not be as resistant to general audience tastes, those anticipating a conventional Mark Wahlberg thriller might find themselves disappointed. However, those willing to take a chance on a less predictable narrative might discover its hidden rewards.

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