Culture of Pop

‘The Gambler’ Overcomes Flaws with Strong Performances

The Gambler features Mark Wahlberg as Jim Bennett, a desperate gambler drowning in debt. It’s not exactly a special inclusion in 2014’s long list of movies, but it presents enough entertainment and acting value to be considered worthwhile. Wealthy by birth and employed as a college professor, Wahlberg’s character creates his own problems and seems addicted to drama on top of gambling. This lifestyle leads to increasing debt and relationships with criminal figures best avoided.

As one of the individuals Wahlberg’s foolishly gotten involved with, Michael Kenneth Williams stars as The Gambler‘s most memorable character, Neville Baraka. Yes, Omar Little has turned into Neville Baraka, continuing the epic list of names attributed to Williams’ characters. The former star of The Wire and recent staple on Boardwalk Empire shines as both an enabler and advice provider to Jim. He fronts Jim enough money so the addicted gambler can pay his debts, but he’s also quick to drop a threat should he be crossed.

Jim eventually gets in debt with Mr. Lee, played subtly by Alvin Ing, and Frank, a role commanded forcefully by the always superb John Goodman. These are criminally connected individuals with henchmen willing to use violence and intimidation toward Jim. As Wahlberg’s character wages bets and attempts to swim up from under the surface, he becomes infatuated by one of his students, Amy. She’s played by up-and-comer Brie Larson who starred in the severely underrated film Short Term 12. As Jim’s debt mounts, his connection with Amy strengthens. This comes in spite of his odd ideologies and borderline suicidal commitment to living on the edge.

For a gambler in a movie called The Gambler, what’s the most feasible and predictably inevitable way to erase a massive debt? To gamble. Jim does exactly that. From shamelessly borrowing money from his mother, who in a minor role is performed admirably by Jessica Lange, to being staked by some of the figures he owes money to, Jim sets up the ultimate score. This is where the movie becomes a touch ridiculous. He has a basketball playing student of his agree to fix a game, something encouraged by Neville. The athlete unrealistically agrees to participate without the slightest bit of hesitation.

He then manages to borrow money from Frank despite the incredibly overweight character having full knowledge of Jim’s reckless nature. Jim also coughs up more borrowed money from Mr. Lee even after suffering a severe beating courtesy of his goons. Why is this unrealistic? It seems like Jim would have a few broken ribs or fractured bones, maybe even worse, if he was so callously stupid and defiant toward serious criminals. A final failed chance resulting in grave injury or death would precede continued chances for a bad bet. Regardless, the world begins turning Jim’s way. Amy falls hard for him, the basketball player successfully fixes the game, and Jim uses the money staked by Frank and Mr. Lee to ultimately pay them and Neville back.

Victory for Wahlberg in the end. Even with these unrealistic plot points accounted for though, Wahlberg is charismatic and often comical in his role. Williams steals the show in a performance suited to his strengths. Goodman creates fear and comedy in equal measure during his scene-stealers sprinkled intermittently. Then there’s Larson and Lange, a potential star and an established Hollywood regular, making their marks throughout the flick. The Gambler isn’t a groundbreaking film. In fact, it’s probably not even particularly close to matching Rounders, a popular gambling movie from 1998. It’s laced with strong performances and entertainment value though, making it worth watching and easy to follow.

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