Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Gambler - How Cool is Too Cool?

Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is cool.  He dresses cool, he acts cool, he wears cool sunglasses, he sits under the sun in a sissy umbrella cool, he asks dating advice from random Mexican ladies on parkbenches cool.  As a professor he makes nihilistic arrogant speeches to his literature class, dashing their dreams and their foolishness to even try.  He dumps incredible fortunes for the empty thrill of it cool.  And even after proving himself to be a paramount asshole, Bennett remains chill.  So cool in fact, he freezes into a dangerous Wahlberg iceberg, threatening to smash his movie into the brink.  "The Gambler" is so enthralled with how cool its star can be, it actually forgets to explore the character.

Somewhere within "The Gamber"'s DNA is a sleazy 1970s-style antihero flick about a man who has everything, looks cool while having everything, and then meaninglessly tears it out down just for the Hell of it.  Those pieces lie in the original James Toback film from 1974 starring James Caan*.  Marky Mark's character begins the film marching into an underground gambling den, blowing several hundred thousand dollars on a ridiculous bet on blackjack.  Then he borrows another forty thousand dollars and blows it just as quickly.  Bennett's demeanor obviously shows he is too cool for the entire world - too relaxed to care that he has entrapped himself into monstrous debts with ruthless crime lords that he could never hope to pay off, and too calm to care what happens to him.  One starts to wonder:  is there anything beneath the chill?  Are there eyes underneath the sunglasses capable of weeping?  Is there really a person below that messy "Boogie Nights" haircut?  Or is it all just a very fashionable prop?

"The Gambler" is a movie with style.  It's well-shot, it's fantastically acted, and importantly, it carries it's story with an original wit and energy.  There are wonderful performances across the board from a selection of fantastic actors, relishing their moment to play viscous mobsters and give grand Shakespearean speeches.  Director Rupert Wyatt sets a strange darkly humorous tone to the entire affair.  From the use of entirely diegetic musical score (many in-jokes are made about the source of songs being car radios or choir practices) to brilliant use of montage and color, "The Gambler" feels like a movie with it's own identity and refined tastes.   It is all rather compelling on the surface.  What we have here is a near-triumph of style over substance, but still ultimately not dramatic or human enough to be a truly great film.

Defying the title of the film, and in spite of his actions, Jim Bennett claims he is not a gambler.  This is a man who puts himself well into a hole of $240,000 dollars debt combined with two mobsters, and then tries his best to get in deep with a third.  The reality though, is that it does not actually matter to Jim if he's in debt or not.  You could call it him a zen pratt; a Bodhisattva of douchiness.  This man's entire life has been nothing but an easy slide forward.  His mother (a fantastic Jessica Lange) is rich and her misplaced sense of exhausted guilt in her son's madness means she will indulge his every fuck-up.  He's a decently talented attractive writer who can keep a classroom enthralled while he explodes at them all for a lack of talent.  Jim can effortlessly make rather insightful commentary into Chekhov - and then dismisses it as bullshit.  He calls his entire class bullshit, his entire life bullshit.  All of it is easily enough pissed away with no fear of repercussions for anybody.

Or maybe the screenwriter had a really terrible English Lit professor and this character is their immature attempt at revenge.
Jim's problem is that he is not perfect.  He has come to the conclusion that he is not a genius.  Despite having written a fine novel to high critical acclaim, he cannot stack up against Shakespeare and is doomed to live forever in some level or another of mediocrity.  Jim is proud to tell his class that they, just like him, should really not even bother trying, none of them are good writers.  At that point, there is no point.  Might as well simply turn off from the world and break yourself into dust.  Not that it ultimately matters to this character one way or another.  Jim Bennett is entirely incorrigible:  when shoved so deep into the most hellish hole of debt possible, his only answer is to - impossibly - ask for more money.

However, this film falls apart when it demands that people interact with Jim Bennett with anything other than horror, scorn, or pity.  "The Gambler" admires it's protagonist and his rejection of the entire world.  There's something disturbingly teenager-like about this film and it's immature admiration of a foolish man just because he's "edgy".  The key female player, Amy (Brie Larson) is expected to fall in love with Jim and even serve as a stable connection to reality and possible redemption.  However, with everything I have described, despite being attractive and fascinating in a Dr. Gregory House sort of way, I cannot imagine any person wanting to be close to Jim Bennett.  Who would this girl be that would be charmed away by a Joker who just wants to watch himself burn?  It is actually a very interesting question, so difficult that I wish that Brie Larson were the star versus Wahlberg.  However, there is no answer, and her character is even more lacking in substance than the star.

Even the collection of gangsters that Bennett entangles himself in seem less interested in receiving a return on their investment than they are tickled by the dismissive chill of Marky Mark.  Michael K. Williams and Alvin Ing are the first two that Bennett finds himself enslaved to, and is given a single week to pay off an extraordinary sum.  He then turns to a rather philosophical John Goodman, who spends most of the movie heating his gelatinous body in a schvitz while giving out what were obviously planned to be Oscar-worthy speeches.  This trio of crime lords are charismatic monsters, the exact shadowy figures you would want from a crime movie - both dangerous but enthralling.  They're great to have on camera, even if there will be no awards in this film's history.  However, there is a logic problem here.  They continue to lend money to a man they all agree is on a path of destruction.  Which just seems like, if nothing else, to be very poor banking strategy.  Unless you're Henry Winkler and about to play Fonzi on "Happy Days", cool is not going to pay anybody's bills.

Michael K. Williams was probably in a good 60 to 70% of the movies I saw last year. Not complaining, mind you.
If "The Gambler" has shown the world anything anything, it is is this:  we do not give Mark Wahlberg enough credit.  Just last summer I was giggling at the idea of the Macho Doofus from the Funky Bunch pretending to be a robotics engineer in "Transformers 4".  After a few years playing a swaggering bundle of muscle and steroids, I started to believe he really was the douchy monster from "Pain and Gain".  As it turns out, Wahlberg is an actor, and a damn good one.  He played Michael Bay's masculine freaks so well he managed to convince me that it was who he really was.  Then all of a sudden he does this.  He cuts left while I was looking right.  Wahlberg grows his hair out long, dresses in a dark suit, piles sarcasm into his voice, and sudden he's a misanthropic angry intellectual.  One that is electric to watch on scree, elevating a movie that would be simply flat out terrible without him.

Ultimately, no, "The Gambler" does not work.  It is impossible really to make a drama out of a character who has already given up, somebody whose head is so far up his own ass that even the thought of being buried in some desert hole cannot bother him.  When mortality is not very interesting to a character, romance cannot be made interesting either.  Ignoring that, much of "The Gambler" is excellent:  the acting, the cinematography, the lead's fashion sense, etc.  I can listen to John Goodman recite any number of grandoise speeches, while coining the phrase "fuck you position".  It really does not matter if the movie they are in cannot come up with a solid thematic point.  "The Gambler" is still a cool movie.

Cool doesn't actually mean quality after all, nor does it mean common sense, and neither does it mean honest emotions.  It just means cool, nothing else.  Cool doesn't have to stand for anything.  That's why it's limited and superficial.  But that's why it's cool.

* Which I haven't seen, FYI. Consider that probably grounds for dismissal of my opinion on this film, if you must.

** Jim Bennett's tieless dark suit is the most striking moment of male fashion since "Drive".  I know I'm never going to comb my hair again or ever take off a pair of sunglasses.


  1. To me the movie came across as one of the average movies I'd ever seen. It was neither good nor bad. Not a waste of my money, but something I would not see again.

    1. Average is a pretty serious fault of The Gambler. It's like that one brown haired dude in your economics class, the one who sits in the third row. Answers a question every now and then, but never has anything interesting to contribute. Just faded into the wallpaper. Can't quite remember his name, or his face.

      Months later you run into him working as a waiter a Ruby Tuesday. He says hi, remembers you perfectly, even has an anecdote about something witty you said to the professor, while you cannot even remember if the class was in Macro or Microeconomics.

    2. Hahaha exactly! Kinda like that disposable tennis star who only exists to place a bet for Marky Mark.