Perhaps the best lead performance James Caan ever delivered was in the 1974 film “The Gambler.” It’s one of the best movies ever made about the self-destructive side of gambling, and it’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
Now comes the remake with Mark Wahlberg. While it retains many of the key plot elements, it loses something in the translation.
In the original, Caan’s literary professor character was his own worst enemy. There seemed to be something almost noble about his existential, near-suicidal approach to gambling. He was on a near-mythic journey. He didn’t gamble to win; he gambled because it made him feel alive.
In Rupert Wyatt’s remake, Wahlberg is a novelist and literary professor named Jim Bennett, who spends nearly all his class time berating his students and bemoaning his own fate. Jim is such a narcissistic, self-pitying jerk, his once-full classroom is reduced to about a dozen students before the semester is out, and with good reason. Who pays tuition to listen to some guy who says there’s maybe one talented writer in the whole class and the rest of ’em should pack it in?
Jim is flat-out cruel to his wealthy mother, played by Jessica Lange, even as he’s asking her for another huge loan so he can get out of debt and stay alive. He’s even a smartass to the loan sharks who are looking to get paid and WILL hurt him if he doesn’t come up with the money on time.
A whole movie about an entitled brat who needs to grow up? He’d better be a fascinating, complex entitled brat. As played by Wahlberg, that never really happens. Even when Jim shows signs of growth, it seems arbitrary.
William Monahan’s screenplay gives us a quartet of supporting characters who are more interesting and complex than Jim, even with much less screen time. Brie Larson’s Amy is a brilliant student who is drawn to Jim, even though she sees through his B.S. and is stunned when she sees his self-destructive habit up close. John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams liven things up as loan sharks who speak like philosophers. Anthony Kelly is terrific as Lamar, a basketball star at Jim’s college who is a lot smarter than Jim gives him credit for — and all too willing to listen to Jim’s pitch for him to “shave” points, i.e., do everything to make sure his team doesn’t cover the point spread.
The gambling scenes are just OK, lacking the tension and insider feel of the original. The basketball game where Lamar is supposed to take a dive never feels authentic, especially in the ridiculous final minute.
Actually, Jim isn’t all that much of a gambler. He’s not an obsessive compulsive type who will bet on anything and everything, nor is he someone who spends time studying the point spreads, learning how to count cards in blackjack or mastering poker strategy. He’s just a double-or-nothing maniac betting insane amounts of cash on blackjack or picking red or black at the roulette wheel. “The Cincinnati Kid,” this ain’t.
Wahlberg has grown so much as an actor we can pretty much buy him as a college professor/author. There’s just not enough depth to the character of Jim, and not much of a story arc. You know a movie’s in trouble when we’re starting to root for the loan sharks to put the gambler out of his misery.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by William Monahan, based on a film written by James Toback. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity). Opens Thursday at local theaters.