In this remake, “The Gambler” makes a transition from East Coast to West Coast, grimly suicidal winner who wants to lose to a slick adrenaline-junky who gets the girl who surely deserves better than him.
James Toback, the original writer for semi-autobiographical “The Gambler,” survived his gambling addiction to write the script for a 1974 movie starring James Caan. The movie, a property of Paramount Studios, is the basis of the new Mark Wahlberg movie of the same name, “The Gambler.” Toback wasn’t contacted of consulted and although the barest skeleton remains, the 2014 movie is slicker and romanticized with the brutality and threat heightened and the protagonist’s relationship with his grandfather downplayed.
While the original movie began with us hearing voices of men playing Blackjack, this new version, written by William Monahan, begins with a slow jam (“That Glow” by St. Paul and the Broken Bones).
I lost my sincereness for that time they been away
I’ve carry all on this side of road
To mine rest in peace
No I am away and high
Yes she’s gone with someone else
Now I wish it was me that testify
I give it all, set me free,
They don’ t mean they don’t mean
That carry it’s burning inside of me
Ooh how it’s rolling, well she’s gone with somebody else
How I wish it was me
How I wish it was me
When the red BMW M1 pulls up and the engine turns off, the music stops. We’ve been listening into the reality of Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg). He’s a man with dark black hair who wears nice suits and walks into a high class gambling establishment with a certain swagger that is temporarily put on pause when he sees a familiar face. He knows one of the waitresses, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson). She’s young, blonde and dressed in a black cheongsam that glimmers just enough to suggest glamour but not too shiny to suggest sex on sale. This wiggle dress looks individually fitted and requires a high slit and high heels. That’s hard work and eye candy for men who don’t seem focused on grabbing asses. The ethnically mixed crowd of men and women are there for some serious gambling.
The original “The Gambler” took place in New York City where a car is a luxury and driving around and leaving the top down of a convertible seems risky at best and foolhardy at worst. In Los Angeles, to get those scenic drive down stretches of coastal roads and then through Koreatown to the Jewelry District, you need a car. No metro system will take you there and get you back in time for your classes.
As the gambler, James Caan was in the hole for $44,000. Now that’s an unlucky number in Asia.
For Bennett, he’s betting $20,000 and $40,000 on one blackjack hand. When his luck is up, he pushes it, not holding back. That kind of risk is breathtaking and he attracts crowds and that seems to feed his ego.
After being up all night, he goes to teach class. At first the classroom is full. Bennett once wrote a novel that was well received, but he doesn’t write now because he refuses to be a “mediocrity in a medium that died in the last century.” He doesn’t want to be a “mid-list novelist who gets good reviews from people I give good reviews to.
Instead, he teaching a literature class–one of those general education class one takes and soon forgets. A few students might have some intense interest or be inspired. While discussing Shakespeare, a nerdish student (Josiah Blount) asks the Oxford question. Did the Earl of Oxford write all the works that the world credits to Williams Shakespeare?
Bennett takes that student down, commenting that one can “rage over the nature of unequal distribution of talent,” but desiring the thing cannot make you have it. “Genius is magical, not mechanical,” he explains.
Bennett believes that he recognizes genius and it resides in that particular student, Amy (Brie Larson), the one who knows about his gambling habit and other life. Although there are two athletes in Bennett’s class–a tennis player and a basketball player, they both help him in his gambling, but he only really helps one out, a guy who needs money in the bank because the basketball games have broken down his knees, something that he keeps secret from his coach.
Bennett eventually is in debt to the Korean Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the most deadly of them all, Frank (John Goodman). If Mr. Lee is the coldly dispassionate mobster and Neville the cool cat gangster, then Frank is the massive slab of flesh American. He’s a Midwest meat-and-potatoes man, unconcerned with image and good clothes and good hair. He shaves his head and we see him at a sauna–mounds of white flesh hanging. He’s like a Caucasian human incarnation of Jabba the Hut and instead of Princess Leia, he means to enslave this young prince of privilege.
Bennett asks his beautiful mom for money, but she’s been there before. She not just frustrated as Caan’s mother was. She is stone-cold frozen with anger and disgust. Bennett isn’t particularly charming here; he’s spoiled and obnoxious.
So much of the examination of an addicts self-destructive behavior is lost in “The Gambler” in 2014.
Although Camus’ “L’Etranger” is also brought up, what is lost of the comparison of “The Gambler” with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Gambler.” What is lost is the tension between the protagonist and his grandfather, what is lost is the slight misogyny when Axel’s and his grandfather discuss his girlfriend as if she was a prize broodmare or how Axel uses a woman as an excuse to have a fight. Yet in 2014, the gambler picks a relationship that is ethically inappropriate. He begins dating a current student but that fits in with the Hollywood misogyny. Older male star with a much younger female love interest.
In the original “The Gambler,” Axel’s love interest was played by Lauren Hutton who was actually older than Caan but only by a few years.
“The Gambler” in 2014 has no lessons about addiction (For that, check out Gamblers Anonymous’ 20 questions). Bennett gets to beat the big bosses behind illegal games and gets the girl. He looks only slightly worse for wear, but healthy enough to run from Koreatown to the Jewelry District (roughly 3 miles) and then on to the apartment where his girlfriend is staying. Is this a happily ever after? Only if you live in the now and wonder how long before he’s stealing from her tips. This version of “The Gambler” has lost its sincerity and instead of gambling, went for safe Hollywood hooks.