I’ll make a bet with you. If you go to see this movie, you’ll come away feeling like you lost. Everyone loses watching this garbage. Even Mark Wahlberg, one of the producers. He lost 60 pounds to play the character James Caan did in the far superior original in 1974 (side note: let’s stop praising guys for losing weight or bulking up for movie roles).
I’m wondering if anybody will knock Wahlberg’s performance. It was awful. You don’t buy him as an intellectual for a second. He plays an intelligent professor who has written a well-received novel, yet when he pontificates to his bored students about Shakespeare and Camus, not a word of it sounds authentic. Often times, it sounds like Jake Gyllenhaal doing his lines in Nightcrawler (who is supposed to speak quickly and sound like he’s rehearsed his lines).
There are only two people that deserve credit in this entire movie. That would be cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher). He catches some of the gambler’s haunts rather well. Of course, some of those just seem like set-pieces you’d find in a cliché handbook on what an Asian back-alley gambling hall looks like.
The other good thing about it is John Goodman. He has some great speeches, but boy does this movie have a lot of crappy speeches in it. Goodman also has both an avuncular and menacing presence all at once.
It’s unfortunate that the screenwriter did such a poor job. I felt he did an awful job with The Departed, but he won an Oscar for that, so what do I know? He also gave us Kingdom of Heaven, Edge of Darkness, Body of Lies, and the second, unnecessary and uninteresting Sin City.
The movie starts with a real surprise – Oscar winner George Kennedy on his death bed. I haven’t seen him since the Naked Gun movies. Anyway, he’s telling grandson Jim Bennet (Wahlberg), that he won’t inherit anything (he’s one of the wealthiest men in California).
Bennet loses all his money playing blackjack in the beginning of the movie. We’re under the assumption he’s addicted to gambling. Yet as the movie goes on, we realize he’s just addicted to losing. I thought a lot about Nicolas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas. He wanted to drink himself to death. Yet the movie starts with him burning the picture of a woman, so we realize he’s got a broken heart. That makes it easier to be on his side. Bennet just wants to gamble himself to death, and the self-destructive behavior never makes a bit of sense. He borrows from various loan sharks, and his rich mother (Jessica Lange), just to go back and lose more money. We’d have sympathy for him if we felt he was a gambling addict, but he’s not. At least, he doesn’t come off as an addict. He’s really just an a**hole. They say that you can judge a man by how he treats his mom and waitresses. Well, this guy treats his mom like crap and is rude to blackjack dealers (“Don’t look at him! Just deal me the card.” “Are you my investment adviser or a dealer?”) Which means we’re left to wonder…why root for this guy?
There’s good supporting work from the loan sharks – Alvin Ing and Michael K. Williams (The Wire). It’s great that they aren’t one-dimensional characters, but here’s the problem with them. They wouldn’t keep lending this guy money. They just wouldn’t do it. The largest amount of money is borrowed from Goodman’s character, and he certainly wouldn’t. He sees this guy doesn’t pay off his debts, he lectures him about how ridiculous it is he’s doing what he’s doing, and then he hands him $260,000.
When the gangsters start making threats against his family, and a few students he seems to care about, you really don’t care.
You’d think that might make him a little likable. Yet he brings those two students into sticky situations. Oh, and if Brie Larson’s character is this genius he claims, how about showing us that. Instead, we just see her staring at him in class or sipping drinks for hours while he gambles. Maybe women have a point when they say no good roles are written for them.
The movie does have a rather interesting soundtrack: Bob Dylan, Alan Price, Pulp, M83, Dinah Washington, Cole Porter, and Rodriguez doing Crucify Your Mind. We also get a few Pink Floyd covers (although Money was a bit obvious), and a choir doing Radiohead.
I enjoy movies that involve gambling; A Big Hand for the Little Lady, House of Games, Rounders, The Hustler, Cincinnati Kid, The Sting, California Split, Gilda…the list goes on. Even a Matthew Broderick film called Finding Amanda, which was deemed so bad they didn’t release it to theatres, was decent. He had a gambling problem, and you enjoyed watching him hit rock bottom. He was intelligent and charming enough, that we felt bad for his plight.
You don’t care at all about Mark Wahlberg in this, and it easily goes to the very bottom of the list of gambling movies.
1 ½ stars out of 5.