Mark Wahlberg as a verbose literature professor isn't exactly likely casting, but the star walks away a winner with The Gambler, Rupert Wyatt's remake of Karel Reisz's 1974 drama. Taking inspiration from an 1867 Dostoyevsky novella, James Toback (Bugsy) wrote the original picture, and executive produces the remake, but Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) does the honors this time around. Wahlberg's prof Jim Bennett is one antiheroic sonuvagun, a tortured, self-loathing individual who doesn't see much point in living ("Life's a losing proposition—might as well get it over with") and therefore sees little reason not to gamble at the probable expense of everything. Bennett teaches "all or nothing at all...to be or not to be" and "The only thing worth doing is the impossible," some of many koans in a deliriously script-y script.
An early sequence follows Bennett on a gambling jag that puts him, within minutes, into a $240,000 hole that frames the rest of the narrative: with one week to pay off the massive debt, Bennett weighs and pursues options that are their own kinds of gambles. Wyatt kicks the narrative along with stylish use of source music (including the Dinah Washington vocal "This Bitter Earth") and sleek cinematography and production design.
Bennett's tenuous balance of disdain for life and prideful individualism makes him both unlikeable and a perhaps uniquely American archetype. An erstwhile novelist, Bennett lectures his students, "If you're not a genius, then don't bother," an embittered spin on "Go big or go home." Mortality and the ineffectuality of legacy also frame Bennett's midlife considerations, with George Kennedy putting in a one-scene appearance as a deathbed dad.
Monahan's hyper-witty screenplay contributes to a highly entertaining heightened reality while offering vivid supporting roles. John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams sling wisecracks as competing loan sharks. The winningly unsentimental Brie Larson (Short Term 12) plays Amy, a student of Bennett's who becomes drawn to his challenging nature and reckless abandon, while Jessica Lange charges back onto the big screen as Bennett's wealthy, at-wit's-end mother.
The extent to which The Gambler may intentionally or unintentionally glamorize or romanticize gambling does raise concerns, but thoughtful viewers can put the practice, addiction, and this story into contexts. For the most part, any given bet can go either way for the gambler, and though Bennett refuses to be cowed as he stares repeatedly into the ever-more-yawning abyss, Wahlberg's newly lean physique suggests a shrunken man whose redemption, if any, may well have more to do with luck than design. Despite the ambiguously forward-looking philosophy "If I get to nothing, then I can start over," The Gambler remains a study in the self-destructive personality.