Mark Wahlberg’s grown so much in the last 15 years that you forget his limitations. He still can’t show you what’s happening inside a character. He needs dialogue. He needs somewhere to run. The Gambler gives him both, but they’re both terrible. The dialogue never leaves the surface and the running across Los Angeles that happens in the last sequence is supposed to thrill you, but it’s such a cliché that your embarrassment extends to the crew member who has to follow with the camera as Wahlberg chugs along. Wahlberg plays a casino rat named Jim Bennett. Jim owes more than a quarter of a million dollars to an assortment of dangerous men – including the owner of an underground gambling operation (Alvin Ing) and the two loan sharks (Michael K. Williams plays one; a very good, very hairless John Goodman the other) whom he asks, separately, to bail him out.
Standing at a blackjack table, Wahlberg looks the part. He narrows his brow and slings his eyes around the room – at the security cameras, at the dealer, at the security guys in the distance – growing cockier whenever things go his way. This is a film about addiction, and Wahlberg has to split the difference between the kick of turning $10,000 into $80k and the kick in the gut of turning that into nothing. But anytime Wahlberg has to walk a fine line here, to sketch out some interior world, he can seem just sleepy. The character’s sunglasses — indoors, outdoors — are the equivalent of the actor asking to be graded on a curve.
The movie is a remake of a 1974 film with James Caan at the height of his runty, virile stardom. James Toback wrote the script and tricked it out with all kinds of era-appropriate psychotherapeutic ponderousness. He was working loosely off of Dostoyevsky’s novel, but with a slaggy, grad student kind of narcissism. The reason the original sort of works (it’s not very good) is that director Karel Reisz has no personal stake in the drama’s outcome. He does enough with Toback’s wanking so that “masturbatory indulgence” isn’t the first term that comes to mind. He lets some naturalism come through but also some chaos and suspense and magnetism from Caan, whose acting, in the 1970s and early 1980s, seemed to come entirely from his genitals. Burt Reynolds, by comparison, was cocky insinuation. Caan was all cock.
I don’t know why you would want to remake Reisz’s movie. But Toback’s gassy delusions have a hold on the sort of macho-minded movie people who also want to be taken seriously as intellectual studs. The name of the Hollywood legend Irwin Winkler appears on both as a producer, so there’s that too. Still: Even in Winkler’s part of town, Hollywood is out of smart ideas. The French director Jacques Audiard turned Toback’s 1977 “gangster plays concert piano” drama, Fingers, with Harvey Keitel, into The Beat That My Heart Skipped. The Paris setting made the preposterousness more palatable and less defensive. Toback’s writing always seems to be at war with itself. He was always out to prove that going to Harvard doesn’t make you a pussy – unless it does.
William Monahan, who did the script for The Departed, an adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, also adapted this one. All the personal class tension is gone from this new version, which was directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). It has nothing to prove, is several years too late for the televised poker boom of a couple of years ago, and has no way of getting you to care about Jim. Everything about the movie is off. The camera keeps pointing to obvious information, lest we miss something. I’d rather be lost than have a movie hold my hand through every irrational flare-up, as though addiction makes more sense on a leash. The ending of the ’74 version, with Caan pursuing a death wish at a Harlem whorehouse, is as appalling as it is sick. But it was something.
The new movie keeps the central tension of the 1974 version: Jim is also a literature professor and novelist. In ’74, it was a silly way to nod to Dostoyevsky’s thin influence. Here, it’s a preposterous pretension that that’s meant to be a crowning irony. In the big lecture hall, the camera dances among the students and then pans up and reveals Jim ready to teach. But what’s the class really about? Wahlberg sits on his desk at the bottom of the class, then proceeds to stalk into the seats, going on (and on) about the provenance of Shakespeare’s work.
The sequence is meant to establish two things: that Jim has (or once had) something to offer and squandered it, and that the waitress we see in an early casino scene happens to be the best writer in the course. She’s played by Brie Larson, whose best scene comes toward the start, when she slowly pops her eyes at the sight of Wahlberg walking into a room to gamble. This is the sort of character who becomes worth living for even though the movie gives her no reason to feel that way. But, boy, if Jim doesn’t waste an entire class putting down the other students in order to build her up. At some point, Jim lays into a star basketball player (Anthony Kelley) for paying more attention to his smartphone than to Jim’s lectures. But as far as I can tell, whoever he’s texting has more to say.
Wahlberg rushes through the speeches in these scenes like someone walking on hot coals. When you find out that Andre Braugher is playing the department head, you think, There’s an actor who can turn this water into wine. This is a movie that could have gotten away with its mediocre ambitions with the right star. But as good as Wahlberg can be, he’s wrong for bottoming out. You need to sense a self-revulsion or fear or a high, anything but Wahlberg’s lackadaisical approach. Wahlberg just seems petulant. There’s no stress to the performance, probably because there’s no stress to the movie (Monahan keeps the original movie’s thrown basketball game, and the stakes for it feel ever lower here). Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon and even Ben Affleck don’t mind looking desperate. Wahlberg puts off a kind of thuggy smugness that’s too cool for suffering. Only when Jessica Lange shows up as his tortured gorgon of a mother does his recessive character makes sense. She doesn’t leave any air in the room. Lange applies psychology to her work, sometimes too much. But she’s the only person who has been permitted to demonstrate any natural instincts, to do any thinking at all.
Before The Door Pictures
If you see only one new movie about a short, handsome man running all over a city desperate for money, don’t make it The Gambler. Both that movie and A Most Violent Year operate, at least partially, under the influence of the 1970s filmmaking and thinking, in different ways, about how to make (and unmake) it in America. J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year speaks more clearly to all the ideas of struggle and propriety and the inexorability of corruption. Chandor really has a grasp for big themes and knows why, aside from certain imperatives of ego, he’s made his movie.
It’s set in 1981, and it watches as a Latino businessman named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) tries to corner the market on New York City’s heating-oil wars. That’s as unsexy as it sounds. But as Abel (it’s pronounced “AH-bell”) pushes entrepreneurship into empire, Chandor matches the outward expansion with gorgeous Hollywood-style classicism that is rather sexy. One of Abel’s competitors keeps holding up his trucks and stealing the oil. The film opens with the first of two good suspenseful set pieces involving one of the drivers, poor Julian (Elyes Gabel), under attack by a pair of goons. These are broad-daylight sequences, and the editing by Ron Patane, and smooth, patient photography by the officially ingenious Bradford Young, gives the scenes a sideways kind of tension. In the medium close-ups and long shots, you’re searching for trouble.
Abel needs the heists to stop. He’s trying to close a deal on a major piece of waterfront property and needs the bank to continue to back his loan. But his drivers are spooked, and they’re telling their teamster boss (Peter Gerety) that they need protection when they drive. No, Abel, says. It’ll lead to warfare, and a death would be placed at his feet. The film’s central tension is moral. Abel fancies himself above the scare tactics of the hoodlums his competitors fraternize with. He maintains so many delusions about the degrees of corruption and gangsterism required for certain kinds of business that he’s blind to his own company’s crimes. Abel and his attorney (Albert Brooks, his hair looking very William Hurt) turn to the district attorney (David Oyelowo) for help, but the DA warns them that he’s days away from charging the company — Standard Heating Oil — with all kinds of tax evasion and fraud.
Yes, it seems Abel’s got Sidney Lumet–level urban chaos on his hands. But Chandor is also thinking about the Shakespearean origami of The Godfather films. To that end, he has refolded Kay Corleone’s relationship to Michael. Now she’s Lady Macbeth. Jessica Chastain plays Mrs. Morales, a steely, chic Brooklyn blonde named Anna. Abel purchased Standard from her father, who, we come to understand, is a person to be feared. So, too, apparently, is she. We never see her use the kitchen because she’s busy cooking the books. When intruders violate the sanctity of their new modernist fortress in the woods and Abel gives chase with a bat in tow, that proves inadequate for her. He won’t arm himself, so she does, and when a ride home from a business dinner culminates with a crash, it’s she who blasts away at the deer they’ve hit.
The echoes of Corleone and Macbeth might be a bit much, but they’re entertaining. Anna only pops up here and there, often with some kind of schemed-up surprise in store. So Chastain is free to make the cliché as hard and ruthless as she possibly can without tipping over into caricature. She can protect herself and the Morales family’s three daughters, but she leaves that to her man because, in 1981, it is still the custom. She’ll maintain the ruse: “Dirty” Harry Callahan disguised as disco-era Debbie Harry.
With a movie like this, you need an actor who can maintain a fearsome center of gravity amid the stars shooting off in his midst. Isaac does it. He withstands Chastain; the excellent Gabel; Alessandro Nivola, who plays an oil rival with about three excellent scenes; and Annie Funke as the least likely of oil dons. Isaac has become the sort of actor who really might be able to do anything. Much of it goes beyond pure technique, though he’s strong in that department too. Isaac just has an uncanny ability to adjust the volume on his acting, often so that you forget that’s what he’s doing. As Abel, he wears great suits and coats. His gray hair has been given height and body. He’s not a big man. He’s as small as Caan and Wahlberg and Al Pacino, whom he most evokes here. And like Pacino at his young finest, Isaac, who’s 35, knows how to make himself seem much bigger than he is. It isn’t that you have to fear Abel. You have to respect him. He has to seem capable of both decency and criminality. Isaac conflates the two in a way that gives Abel considerable power. This is best performance Pacino didn’t give in the 1980s.
If only the movie were doing more than diagramming the rise of a tycoon. Chandor gives a film about business some intriguing racial undergirding, with Abel desperate to maintain the appearance of class, of being upstanding, probably because he presumes no one expects that of him. Assimilation is inevitable. Decorum is a weapon. The light Hispanic accent Isaac gives to the character contrasts with the more pronounced accent of Gabel’s Julian, an immigrant who desperately wants to stop driving and start making sales. But when Julian asks to do so, he’s in the worst physical condition, banged up and on crutches after the accident. The assumption is that he’s too battered to makes house calls. As the film builds into a divergent tale of luck and ambition and aptitude, you realize that Julian is just too foreign and too brown to convince white people to change their heating supplier.
The movie runs just over two hours, and Chandor keeps the movie almost antiseptically tight. He’s proving to be a smart director whose skill is growing astronomically in three movies (he’s gone from Margin Call to All Is Lost to this in four years). If he were an athlete, I’d have my suspicions about the source of that strength. But at the movies, you’re grateful to have him. He respects an audience enough to assume they’ll stay with him, and he’s a fluid enough storyteller that you very much want to keep up. But right now, especially here, his classicism is too clean. He doesn’t pass up an opportunity to remind you that the film is a tale about America (the haunting closing-credits number by Alex Ebert is called “American”), like Godfather or Scarface. He can be didactic in that way, returning to a theme as though he’s participating in an oral exam. The movie is missing the risk of making Julian, say, the Cain to Isaac’s Abel, of giving over a third of the movie to flesh him out. It’s a John Cazale part that probably needs Cazale’s writing. If Chandor’s going to play with these ideas of temptation, disillusionment, and betrayal, he should give the movie the biblical scope it needs for greatness. He’s more than sound as a thinking director. He’s vital. But he leaves you yearning for something bigger, hotter. What he could use more of is soul.