Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Gambler (2014)

Looking at the credits for this thing on IMDB: I'm kind of amazed that this is Anthony Kelley's debut. I don't know if the movie really needs a guy who can play decent basketball in the role of Lamar Allen - I don't recall director Rupert Wyatt particularly shooting and cutting those parts of the movie in such a way that there was no way to disguise whether or not an actor had NCAA-level skill - so casting a first-timer whose chief qualification seems to be that he played college ball in a fairly important part seems kind of risky, especially considering that the likes of Andre Braugher and Richard Schiff basically had walk-ons. It worked out, though; Kelley was one of the most memorable parts of the film.

Also - it seems quite strange that Wyatt did Rise of the Planet of the Apes between The Escapist and this. Rise was a much better, smarter movie than expected, but the ones on either side are so grounded in a certain category of human shades of gray that the big sci-fi epic in between comes across as rather a strange detour.

Most of the rest of what I want to say is in the EFC review, but I do have one thought about the end that I can't get out of my head.


I don't think I've ever seen a movie that could have perhaps been improved by an aggressively ambiguous ending more. Movies about gambling often tend to have the randomness inherent in the games act as a proxy for a character being judged worthy or unworthy, or perhaps tragic, whether they mean to or not. I think the last few minutes of this one fall prey to it a bit more than the filmmakers perhaps intended. Even as Bennett's actions show a man who is still compelled to go for the grand, ingenious gesture even when it may not be necessary, the feeling is that he has triumphed over his more self-destructive nature, even though that's not really what happened at all.

But imagine if the film cut to black during that last spin of the roulette wheel, emphasizing that whatever outcome built on gambling comes up doesn't matter nearly as much as how the addiction itself is dangerous and self-destructive. Maybe Bennett and those around him get out okay, maybe not - it doesn't matter, because he is basically unchanged. Or if the idea is that he has changed, remove the element of chance and just have him plan meticulously, forcing himself to greatness rather than building his plans around genius and good fortune being randomly and capriciously distributed.


Maybe I'm overthinking it, but I think it's kind of funny that the sort of ending I described, while very often rightly considered a gimmick, might have given a bit more solidity to a movie that is fairly often very good style of decent substance.

The Gambler (2014)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2014 at AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

At one point in this version of The Gambler (a remake of a 1974 film itself inspired by a Dostoevsky novella), a character mentions that he doesn't understand suicide; as vulnerable as he feels at that moment, the type of despair that leads there is utterly foreign to him. I wonder if the idea behind this movie was to make feelings that may be similarly foreign to a viewer - the compulsions of a gambler and those around him - more tangible. If so, it succeeds fitfully, but at least surrounds the moments where it does with style.

The gambler in question is Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), an associate professor of literature in Southern California, who has an impressive if risky run to begin a night but eventually winds up just pushing his debt higher, north of a quarter million dollars owed between Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the owner/operator of many underground casinos in the Los Angeles area, and Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a smart but ruthless loan shark. Though his family - particularly mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) - is wealthy, he is not, and the fact that Lee and Baraka both want to collect within a week, makes star student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) seeing him while serving drinks in one of Lee's establishments and the dean pushing him to pass basketball star Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) despite him texting throughout class seem like small potatoes.

Lamar is the one who says he can't understand suicide, and writer William Monahan also gives him the lines which best explain Bennett in a nutshell - that everything is all or nothing with him, and if one is not phenomenally successful at what he attempts, then there is no point whatsoever. It's a terribly unhealthy attitude that Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt push hard with mixed results: There are scenes of Professor Bennett starting off from a good place and veering off into things one would rather an educator not say that are mesmerizing in just how horrifying they are, and there is a moment or two when Bennett is up where the audience can see just how euphoric this can make a person feel. Lacking, perhaps, is similar clarity on the other side - why doesn't losing seem as terrible as winning is wonderful? The later parts of the movie, where Bennett actually finds himself caring enough about other people to be motivated on their behalf but still compelled to make a game out of it doesn't have nearly the force behind it as the earlier self-destruction.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: