Film review: ‘The Gambler’ remake is miscast and unconvincing

Mark Wahlberg as both a college professor and a novelist? Come on, Hollywood!

Two and a half stars

The Gambler Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams. Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Rated R. Now playing.

If Hollywood studios are going to insist on churning out remakes, they might as well stick with movies like The Gambler, a solid but not spectacular 1974 drama starring James Caan as a college professor with a serious gambling addiction. It’s neither an acclaimed classic nor a beloved fan favorite, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be updated and recontextualized. Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) don’t quite know how to refresh the material, though, updating the setting to the present day but trying to replicate the feel of bold ’70s cinema in a way that mostly comes off as false and empty.

The other problem is that star Mark Wahlberg is utterly unconvincing as a college professor (and, in this version, also a promising novelist). He makes grandiose speeches to his dumbstruck students (and even sleeps with one of them, played by the great but underused Brie Larson) but never sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Even experienced supporting actors John Goodman and Michael K. Williams, as two of the scary men Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett owes money to, have trouble with Monahan’s overly verbose script.

Wyatt shows his Martin Scorsese influence by saturating the soundtrack with rock and pop songs, but they only serve to distract from the story’s lack of depth. Caan’s Axel Freed was a tragic, self-destructive addict, but Jim Bennett is just an inconsiderate jerk with no inner life. Like Jim, the movie is all swagger and no follow-through.

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