The Gambler Doesn’t Know When to Hold ‘Em, When to Fold ‘Em

Those reeled in by its fast-paced trailer will likely find that The Gambler disappoints with its shallow look at problem gambling and its lack of imagination.  Mark Wahlberg stars as Jim, a college professor whose nasty gambling habit lands him in serious debt to some unsavory people.  After his latest binge and continued failure to make payments, Jim’s exasperated debtors give him a week to square his accounts.  Jim ponders his life and perilous situation as he begins to develop an unlikely and unconvincing romantic relationship with Amy (Brie Larson), one of his students.

Jim’s careless attitude quickly becomes off-putting and begs us to ask why we should care about him without supplying a very compelling answer.  When Jim asks to borrow money, Frank (a loan shark played by John Goodman) raises a good question: “Birth, education, intelligence, talent, looks, family money… Has all this been some real comprehensive f***ing burden for you?”  Frank receives only a smug look in reply, but we learn through several rants over the course of the film that Jim is indeed dissatisfied with the hand he has been dealt.  Jim fears a life of mediocrity and pretentiously claims he would rather die than live without greatness akin to the genius of Shakespeare.  High stakes gambling apparently offers an elegant solution in that by borrowing and betting enough money, Jim can practically ensure either incredible wealth through good fortune or his own murder for delinquency.  That might not be the worst way for a person to get through life, but Jim carries his plot to selfish extremes by hurting so many others along the way.  Particularly frustrating as a viewer is Jim’s inexplicable mistreatment of his stern but loving mother (Jessica Lange), who wants to help her son but is coldly rebuffed.

The depiction of Jim’s gambling problem as a symptom of his noble desire for greatness rather than as an addiction is somewhat perplexing.  Jim triumphantly asserts that he is “not actually a gambler” even though his extreme behavior says otherwise, fitting neatly within the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of disordered gambling.  Jim is suffering from a life-threatening affliction and it seems trivializing to say, as The Gambler does, that the only thing necessary to realign his mindset and save his life is the affection of Amy, a girl he barely knows.  A more serious approach might not play well, but taking this cookie-cutter romantic route feels like the easy way out.

The Gambler suffers from the same mediocrity that its protagonist despises.  Confusing moments that simply seem like oversights arise too often and make it difficult to really get into the story.  Jim plays games whose rules are not clear to anyone who hasn’t played before, while secondary characters pop in and out of the film with an unnecessary air of mystery.  There are some bright spots, largely supplied by John Goodman’s entertaining portrayal of Frank, but these are few and far between.  Frank’s witty voice of reason is a breath of fresh air in the midst of so much stilted dialogue and it’s a shame that the rest of the film fails to follow suit.  The film aims to take a thoughtful look at Jim’s existential worries but feels out of touch with its viewers and is ultimately unable to achieve its dramatic ambitions.

Grade: B-

Goodman’s effort is much appreciated, but it may not be worth enduring 100 minutes of context for his 10 minutes of screen time.