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Front Page - Friday, January 2, 2015

‘The Gambler’ is a sure bet

The Critic's Corner

David Laprad

By the time I heard actor Mark Wahlberg say “All on black” a second time in “The Gambler,” I was all in. I’d spent two hours watching a man walk to the edge of a cliff and extend one foot over the abyss, and in that moment, all I wanted out of life was to see what happened next.

Ignore the 48 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes; this is a good movie. I loved it.

I especially loved the dialogue. One of the many things I admire about “The Hustler” (1961) is the poetry of the dialogue. I can watch certain scenes over and over just to hear Paul Newman and the rest of the cast say things like this:

Charlie (as he and Fast Eddie walk into a pool hall): “It’s quiet.”

Eddie: “Yeah, like a church. Church of the Good Hustler.”

Charlie: “It looks more like a morgue to me. Those tables are the slabs they lay the stiffs on.”

Eddie: “I’ll be alive when I get out, Charlie.”

I get chills just typing that. While “The Gambler” doesn’t scale the same heights, it comes close, like in this exchange between Wahlberg’s character, Jim Bennett, a literature professor, and one of his students, a potential love interest:

Jim: “What if I told you I’m not a gambler? What if you saw me sticking a needle in my arm, and I told you I’m not a drug addict?”

Amy: “I’ve seen you in class, and you’re no professor.”

That made me smile. The dialogue gets too wordy for its own good at times, but it’s never poorly written. Stephen Whitty, film critic for Artisyndicate, called it “ornately aggressive.” That made me smile, too.

I also love Wahlberg’s performance. From the opening moments of the movie, he sells his portrait of Bennett as a thunderously self-destructive and broken individual.

Consider the way Wahlberg walks into a gambling establishment at the beginning of the movie. There’s no pleasure on his face, because there’s no pleasure in being held captive. Even when he wins - initially - his expression never changes. Gambling is in Bennett’s nature, even though he’s acting against his will.

I also loved the supporting cast. Given Bennett’s habit, you can imagine the kind of company he keeps. Unsavory doesn’t begin to describe it; scary as hell does. Yet each of the men to whom Bennett finds himself in arrears has a strangely charming personality. It’s a facade rippled with irony, to be sure, but I still admired John Goodman’s Frank, who’s true to his name when he loans Bennett a huge sum of cash along with the contingency that, “If you jump off a bridge to avoid paying me back, do it knowing I will kill your entire blood line.”

Goodman is terrific, as is another actor called Michael K. Williams. You likely have no idea who that is, but when you see him in the movie, you’ll go, “Oh, that guy!” Also, Wahlberg’s few scenes with Jessica Lange, who plays Bennett’s mother, made me wish for more. Their relationship is strained, to say the least, and both actors give these ostensibly minor bits everything they have.

I also loved the ending. I won’t give it away, but I loved it. It has a seventies movie vibe, which might not be accidental given that “The Gambler” is a remake of a 1974 film starring James Caan. I haven’t seen the older film, but I plan to. Many of the negative reviews written about the remake are based on comparisons between the two movies. It’s not easy living up to a classic, but I doubt the original film will spoil my love for the new one.

You might be thinking I have blinders on, such is my love for “The Gambler,” but that wouldn’t be true. For all of its brilliance, the screenplay could have been more deliberate when explaining the source of Bennett’s addiction. One can do the math - his scenes with his mother imply he had an unhappy childhood, while his existential rants in the classroom sound suicidal - but I was left wondering.

Regardless, I love “The Gambler.” Its lines are full of truth, and its actors awash with conviction as they speak them. What more can you ask from a drama?

Three-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated R for language, sexuality, and nudity. David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. He’s addicted to movies, which rarely requires him to borrow money from unpleasant characters. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.