No one will ever convince me that the 2014 remake of The Gambler Directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg isn’t the greatest movie ever made.
Don’t think there aren’t many people who would like to try. At the time of writing the movie stands with a 6⁄10 rating on IMDB and a truly brutal 44% on Rotten Tomatoes . It seems to have fared about as well as you’d expect it to if it was a film about a well-educated wealthy white male who gambles away both his own fortune and a sizable chunk of his family’s—with no apparent remorse whatsoever—only to learn nothing and instead initiate an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student and escape his predicaments through a combination of rigging a sports bet by corrupting a promising athlete into throwing a game and making up the balance with blind luck in an outrageous bet… which is exactly what it is.
Jim Bennett isn’t an incredibly sympathetic protagonist. As Frank puts it in the actual movie itself:
Birth, education, intelligence, talent, looks, family, money… has all this been some real comprehensive fucking burden for you?
…And to top it off, the movie is basically entirely talking! When it was (by all appearances) marketed as an action movie! That link is “supposed” to point to the trailer for the film, but it’s actually the trailer for the Rotten Tomatoes viewer score tumbling down to a gentleman’s 33%
It’s worth plenty.
The fact that the remake of The Gambler was received so poorly might actually make me love it more in some ways.
The thing is, movies are expensive to make. Movies are expensive to make, and the major studios that make them are all divisions of publicly traded corporations that are legally obligated to try to squeeze out whatever money can be found by making them. That means limiting risk, that means making films that internationalize well, that means 3 super hero pseudo-sequels inside a shared cinematic universe every single year. Even all the way from New York, NY, we can see how Hollywood, CA changes when a Fast and the Furious sequel can make $400,000,000 in China alone and suddenly Dwayne Johnson has Jack Nicholson’s floor seats for the Lakers. Yes, that’s an Uhh Yeah Dude reference, although I wish I could find the specific episode.
The Gambler was a risk though. A genuine, honest-to-God risk that didn’t even totally pay off. It’s unapologetically wordy, entirely based in reality, deals with existential issues, relies on strong but often subtle acting, and has an overall sense of craftsmanship that’s hard to find in major studio films. It’s niche. To me, the fact that it ended up being unpopular is just a testament to it actually having a vision and not being some focused-grouped-to-hell bullshit. The Gambler takes a stand and was punished for it, but no one can ever pull a Brie Larson and ask its creators “did you [make] this because you believed in it or because you thought this was what people wanted?”
Wikipedia says The Gambler’s director Rupert Wyatt “made his directorial début with the 2008 film The Escapist” before proceeding to actually make money by directing 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes—a classic Sundance-to-riches success story. I think you see a lot of Wyatt’s indie sensibilities on display in The Gambler, (a friend of mine once said it’s like someone made a Sundance film with a major Hollywood budget,) something which actually ties in well with its thematic content and ethos. After all, “who wants the world at their feet? It’s confusing isn’t it?”
A classroom full of students who don’t give a fuck
The most niche thing about The Gambler (and what I love about it the most) is that it’s a movie for creative people. It’s for people who feel like they could yell as loud as they want and nobody cares. It culminates in Wahlberg’s climactic monologue to Larson, which (personally) didn’t just strike close to home for me, it cut straight to my heart:
You know there was a student—just the other day—who said that my problem (if one’s nature is a problem, rather than just fucking problematic) is that I see things in terms of victory or death, and not just victory but total victory.
It’s true. I always have. I mean it’s either victory or don’t bother. I mean, the only thing worth doing is the impossible, right? Everything else is fucking grey. I mean you’re born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel, so lift a phrase, but there’s no fucking use for it. Here? Where’s the use for it? What, you’re set to be a philosopher or a king of fucking Shakespeare, and this is all they give you? This? What, twenty-odd years of schooling—which is all instruction in how to be ordinary, or they’ll fucking kill you—and they fucking will!
…Y’know, and then it’s a career, which is just not the same thing as existence, so… I want unlimited things. I want everything. I want a real fucking love, a real fucking house, a real fucking thing to do, everyday, and I just… I’d rather die if I don’t get it.
In my experience, people tend to diverge sharply on their reaction to that speech. Some people (like me) feel like they can really relate to it… And then there’s a large group of other people who are more inclined to say it’s one of the craziest things they’ve ever heard.
There’s a quote from an Eddie Huang story Specifically, the Amazon original Single Asiatic Male Seeks Ride or Die ChickPublished digitally 2018-05-28 by Amazon Original Stories, ASIN B078W75GKQ that I think speaks to the same kind of perception:
No matter what a stripper tells you, there are two types of people in this world. There are those who take the world at face value, keep the computers putin’, and don’t know to feel otherwise. The other type of person in this world has seen something wicked and the rest of their life is spent reconciling that vision against their existence.
I think that creative mindset (or instinct, or whatever) is both a real thing and only present in a minority of the world’s population. A strong majority of people really are fine just “keeping the computers putin’”, and it’s always tough to genuinely feel different from everyone else around you. To that end, I would say the thing I appreciate most about The Gambler (and the thing I’d always want to bring up first) is that it feels like a genuinely very helpful movie.
It was for me, at least.