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Wahlberg looks for respectability in 'The Gambler'

Let’s hear it for Mark Wahlberg. Really.

The fellow is clearly trying to grow a little – which is another way of saying he’s making an effort to forever outgrow a misspent youth and an all-too-frequently throwaway movie career.

At the age of 16, Wahlberg spent 45 days in jail for being drunk and drugged up and beating two men, one of whom sustained permanent eye damage. He has recently formally petitioned the state of Massachusetts for a pardon – mostly, it’s thought, to smooth the way for him and his brother Donnie in their “Wahlburgers” business but, no doubt, also because he’s an entirely different man now from the teen thug he once was.

“The Gambler,” opening today, represents reclamation on another front. It’s onscreen evidence that he wants to finally be taken seriously as an actor – the way, say, J.K. Simmons is being taken for his amazing role in “Whiplash” or Joe Morton for his role in TV’s Washington fantasy “Scandal.”

Wahlberg obviously wanted a role with words in it – crunchy, eloquent ones brimming with vicious articulation and toxic wit. He wanted a role with “actor” written all over it.

So here’s Rupert Wyatt’s surprisingly entertaining remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film “The Gambler.” Neither film is to be confused with Kenny Rogers’ “Know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em” TV movie. Nor are they to be confused with Dostoevsky’s short novel “The Gambler,” even though James Toback, the pretentious mini-Mailer who wrote the original script for the 1974 movie, would probably be delighted if anyone did.

The new movie is about a college English professor named Jim Bennett who is far more than a compulsive gambler. The guy we’re watching seems to be fighting a perilous battle with his own death wish. And losing. He goes through money at the blackjack and roulette tables at top speed. It’s as if he can hardly wait for the existential crises all of his exploding debts are bound to present, i.e. all those guys he owes staggering sums of money to, none of whom are the sort to stop in their efforts to collect what they feel is owed them.

If no money is paid back, they’re the sort to move on to body parts – broken bones, amputated limbs, digits and whatnot. And if those seem insufficient to cover all the money our gambler owes, they’ll move on to everyone in his bloodline and his personal affections, all of whom could suffer horribly because of Bennett’s courtship of danger,

Bennett’s “wants to dance with the devil” says one of his creditors. And dance he does – a death waltz with all sorts of unsavory fellows happy to do the devil’s work on him and his.

One of those unsavory creditors is the Korean whose gambling joint Jim favors. He owes the fellow $240,000.

Another is a wisecracking ghetto loanshark to whom he owes $50,000.

Another is a massive brilliantly funny loan shark (John Goodman) whom Jim wants to use to consolidate all his debts into one big one – to the most lethal creditor of them all.

That, of course, allows Goodman to deliver some of the choice words written by William Monahan (“The Departed”), whose raw script is served swimming au jus, making it a surprisingly nourishing meal for the season.

Monahan’s script is the best reason for the film. But that’s when this gets both interesting and unexpected.

Wahlberg isn’t naturally credible as a posturing macho English professor and self-destructive novelist who would prefer not to write the kind of books always reviewed by other people who write books.

But James Caan wasn’t credible in that role in the original either. Don’t believe anyone who tells you he was.

There is, in fact, a way in which Wahlberg is very good indeed here. He isn’t the equal of the role, true, but he’s equal to the juiciness of Monahan’s script. And that’s a huge step up in Wahlberg’s career. What you CAN believe here is that he’s an ambitious actor.

And the very blankness of his accustomed narcissism is almost convincing for a man who, at every turn, makes decisions which are guaranteed to put him in danger with the most lethal people he knows.

The willingness of his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange) to help buy him out of trouble is just a big joke to him. But then, it isn’t really detailed concern on her part either. “I don’t want to know the nature of your problem” she says. “I just want you not to have it anymore.”

There is a beautiful student he encounters while doing his devil’s dance but she’s just there to offer the kind of salvation that both Hollywood and Dostoevsky were very fond of.

It’s not an unfamiliar trope among academics – the professor with the exaggerated affection for danger and low-living and the people who can supply both. There’s nothing quite like the need for machismo among the conspicuously pampered thinking classes.

The place where hyperbolic and histrionic self-loathing becomes a self-deceiving form of self-aggrandizement wasn’t all that interesting a place to be watching in the original film.

This time around, you’ve got two major things going on – a juicy script and an ambitious star trying to sink his teeth into it.

The actor succeeds, more or less.

And then, in the film’s final minutes, the previously fine script fails him completely.

Hey, that’s what sometimes happens when you go all in.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

The Gambler

3 stars

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson and Michael Kenneth Williams in Rupert Wyatt’s remake of the 1974 James Caan movie about a college professor who’s a secret compulsive gambler. Rated R for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity. 111 minutes.

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