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The Gambler - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Gambler
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Here is the rare movie that I like more than most other people seem to. The Gambler is getting mixed reviews at best, and that's a somewhat liberal estimate; audiences are merely lukewarm to it. Somehow, it spoke to me.

Sure, this is a fundamentally unrealistic story of a guy named Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) with a gambling addiction so out of hand that, even when he borrows a huge amount of money, he's wont to gamble and lose that as well. He's got three different loan sharks or crime bosses (or whatever you want to call them) giving him do-or-die deadlines for his debts: the Koreans, headed by a rather stoic old man (Alvin Ing); the African Americans, headed by a guy who likes to pretend he's reasonable (The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams), and a third guy even the others think Jim is crazy to go to (John Goodman, in more shirtless scenes than perhaps was necessary). It could also be said that it feels like a stretch to see Mark Wahlberg in the role of an intellectual novelist and associate professor. Or maybe it's insulting to Wahlberg to say that; you decide.

But a lot can be made up for with a movie done right, and The Gambler, unlike its central character, does not make the audience any promises it can't keep. What's more, it's full of scenes with dialogue so polished that you forget about the implausibility of the situations. Screenwriter William Monahan, adapting from another film of the same name released in 1974 and written by James Toback, has a knack for absorbing the viewer with his words.

On the surface, the all-or-nothing clincher of an ending is fundamentally predictable. But I was so invested in this character -- a rather unlikable one, at that -- that I was still on the edge of my seat at that final moment. If you'll excuse the obvious metaphor, with a movie like this, you either go all in or you don't. If you don't, you'll be lost on it very early on. I went all in, guided by solid performances all around, including Jessica Lange as Jim's mother.

The Gambler is indeed a certain type of movie, fitting squarely within a particular niche genre that has been around for decades. If you're going to bother watching a movie like this, then you just accept some well-established parameters. It may not stack up to Oscar-caliber films to which it has no business being compared, but within its parameters, the pieces fit together with great satisfaction.

This applies even to the somewhat skeevy relationship Jim forges with one of his smarter students (Brie Larson). This character is expendable, really; not much more than a plot device, in the end. But Larson makes her compelling, and the classroom-set scene in which we are introduced to her early on serves as the first example of the many scenes with oddly mesmerizing dialogue.

I suppose if I sat and analyzed it long enough, I'd find plenty to hate about The Gambler -- and other, more skeptical viewers will find plenty more immediately. No one offered this movie as a staggering work of genius, however. It's merely offered as an entertaining and compelling use of your time. It offers more of that than most options at your local multiplex.

Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson play a losing game in THE GAMBLER.</a>

Overall: B+
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