It’s no surprise seeing Mark Wahlberg decked out in black, calm and focused as he enters a high-stakes gambling den.
But the next scene finds him dressed in the same outfit, plus nerdy glasses, as he’s lecturing a college auditorium about Shakespeare. Now there’s a jarring moment.
Such is the dynamic of “The Gambler,” a drama that doesn’t just try to have things both ways; it tries to have everything every way. This is one bumpy exercise in kitchen-sink filmmaking. Keeping with the theme, some of it works great, some of it bombs enormously.
Blackjack is a card game, but it’s also the name of a weapon that can beat you senseless. That describes the life of Jim Bennett (Wahlberg), an English professor and novelist whose affluent upbringing has not insulated him from falling into debt. Way into debt.
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First he owes big to the Korean mob. Then to an impulsive crime lord (Michael Kenneth Williams of “The Wire”). So he tries to borrow from a chatty kingpin (the hilarious John Goodman) to pay off the others.
All told, he’s got seven days to come up with $240,000 before the lives of his country club mom (Jessica Lange) and co-ed girlfriend (Brie Larson of “Short Term 12”) are forfeited.
Still, he seems unfazed. There’s no sense that Jim even enjoys gambling. It’s just his thing, the same way drinking was Nicolas Cage’s thing in “Leaving Las Vegas.”
“Eventually, a debt gets too big to pay,” a Korean gangster (Alvin Ing) tells him. So Jim strives for one final score to settle his obligations en route to finding some inner peace.
Based on the 1974 James Toback film (not the Kenny Rogers song) that starred James Caan, “The Gambler” boasts solid talent behind the camera. Yet director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) appears baffled by the screenplay from William Monahan (an Oscar winner for “The Departed”).
This accounts for wild shifts in tone. A montage of Jim’s girlfriend walking across campus is shot with an endless series of jump cuts, like it’s “Breathless 2.” Jim’s first lecture is staged like a Brechtian play. The concluding scene looks cribbed from a romantic comedy. Dream sequence? You bet.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack vacillates from obvious dinosaur hits such as Pink Floyd’s “Money” to twee indie pop to a cappella chorales.
Praise Wahlberg (who earned an Oscar nomination for Monahan’s “The Departed”) for moving outside his comfort zone. He’s usually asked to play raw blue-collar types, not aloof, intellectual motormouths. It’s an uncomfortable fit, even though he battles hard to make it work. The problem is the character as written is so pretentious and self-destructive that it’s difficult for the audience to connect with his story.
“Life’s a losing proposition,” Jim says. “You might as well get it over with.”
The same goes for investing two hours watching this risky venture.
Rated R for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity