Toronto Star

Remake fails to improve original


The Gambler

(out of 4) Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams and Jessica Lange. Directed by Rupert Wyatt. At GTA theatres. 111 minutes. 14A

In The Gambler, a film that roles the dice on a remake, it’s both instructiv­e and obvious that the classic novel which Mark Wahlberg’s fatalistic English professor teaches to his university class is Albert Camus’ L’Étranger.

With a title that translates as The Stranger (or perhaps more accurately as The Outsider in some editions), it’s an existentia­l story about a man named Meursault who is completely indifferen­t to his fate: “Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”

That’s exactly the frame of mind of the professor, Jim Bennett, who gambles away money with such breathtaki­ng abandon, it brings looks of amazement and words of caution even from ruthless loan sharks.

“I think you’re the kind of guy who likes to lose,” says a shark named Neville, played by Michael K. Williams, after seeing Bennett speedily squander a fortune in an undergroun­d casino.

“Life’s a losing propositio­n,” counters Bennett, who channels his inner Meursault as he sets out to further prove his cynical statement.

The Gambler is Rupert Wyatt’s remake of a 1974 film by the same name, starring James Caan and rewritten by a then-unknown James Toback, and it neither improves on nor discredits the original.

Not that Wyatt was setting out to do that, his impulse instead being to find a character-driven story as artistic counterwei­ght to his blockbuste­r success with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

This certainly is one driven narrative. Wahlberg reportedly lost 60 lbs. for the role, and his gaunt look makes Jim seem all the more haunted as he repeatedly throws away vast sums on games of chance.

Sums that he can’t afford, even after his well-to mother (Jessica Lange) tosses him a financial lifeline. Jim owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to guys like Neville and to the menacing Frank (John Goodman), who wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a deadbeat debtor but who would rather not be assisting a suicide.

Their continuing amazement over Jim’s apparent death wish is one of the film’s more interestin­g aspects, with Goodman being especially good as a figure both menacing and caring. He recognizes the demons within.

What’s the motivation for this insanity? Is it the unresolved father/ son issues suggested by Jim’s lack of emotion for the death of his stern papa (George Kennedy)?

Is Jim existentia­lly bummed over his inability to achieve greatness, either as a teacher, novelist or gambler? “If you’re not a genius, don’t bother,” he tells his students.

Is he just trying to impress Amy (Brie Larson), the student who may become something more to him, if he’s willing or able to open himself to her?

Wyatt and screenwrit­er William Monahan offer resolution of sorts, but ultimately the film brings to mind Camus/Meursault’s famous observatio­n about the “benign indifferen­ce of the universe.”

 ?? CLAIRE FOLGER/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A gaunt Mark Wahlberg, left, and a menacing John Goodman star in The
Gambler, a remake of the 1974 film of the same name.
CLAIRE FOLGER/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS A gaunt Mark Wahlberg, left, and a menacing John Goodman star in The Gambler, a remake of the 1974 film of the same name.

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