‘The Gambler’ Tests the Limits of the Mark Wahlberg Persona

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There is a scene, late in Rupert Wyatt’s new remake of The Gambler, where Mark Wahlberg is getting a serious beating. This isn’t unusual in the back half of the picture, during which Wahlberg sports a steadily pulpier mug, but he does something interesting in the midst of the trouncing: he leans into it. On one hand, that’s entirely in character, all of a piece with the self-destructive instincts of his character, an ultra-privileged nihilist with a serious gambling problem. On the other, it’s a metaphor for what Mark Wahlberg is doing as an actor with The Gambler, a film where he plays — get ready — an English literature professor.

I can hear you snickering. Those are the same snickers that we all shared when Wahlberg played a high school science teacher in The Happening, or a brilliant inventor in Transformers: Age of Extinction. They’re the snickers that say, yeah, sorry, we don’t think “intellectual” when we think of Mark Wahlberg. Twenty years may have passed, but many of us still think of him as Funky Bunch figurehead Marky Mark, or the face (and body) of Calvin Klein underwear, or (thanks to his own questionable efforts to clear up his record) a real-life thug. Those who don’t remember those days, or have chosen to let Wahlberg move past them, tend to think of him in terms of the characters he’s played, Southie-bred tough guys (The Departed, The Fighter), dim bulbs (Boogie Nights, Pain & Gain), or parodies of either (Ted, The Other Guys). Perhaps we consider him the real-life embodiment of the dopes on Entourage, which he produced.

The point is, Wahlberg’s persona isn’t exactly synonymous with hyper-intellectualism — which forms the basis of the very funny parodies of that image crafted by Andy Samberg on Saturday Night Live or Daniel Van Kirk on Doug Loves Movies. He’s kind of a dumb guy, goes the presumption, so how are we supposed to buy him as a smart character?

But the trouble is, he’s not a dumb guy. He sports a distinctive dialect that’s too often associated with dumb guys (which often says more about the classism of those making the assumption than anything else), and had the misfortune of playing smart characters in indisputably stupid movies. Now, he’s playing a smart guy in a smart movie — and he does it with grace, ease, and credibility, while still shading the character with the kind of street-savvy recklessness that we’re used to seeing him play.

And that recklessness is established right from the jump, delving into his world of underground games in back rooms, warehouses, and off-the-grid homes; director Wyatt loves the way these rooms look and feel, the sounds of chips sliding across felt and marble rolling around the wheel. In that first scene, Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) wordlessly goes on a spectacular blackjack run, then blows it, then goes for more cash and starts again. You get a sense of the tension and the rush of playing that way. There’s also a pretty good chance, if you’re a sensible human being, that you’ll realize what separates someone like you from someone like Jim. “If you’d have stopped when you were up, you’d have been square,” a reasonable person might think/yell at the screen. But Jim can’t just stop. Where’s the fun in that?

“I think you’re the kind of guy who likes to lose,” Neville (Michael K. Williams) says, taking in the scene, and he may be right. Yet he offers to stake Jim, and Jim needs it; he owes $240,000, and it’s due in seven days, but he will make and lose that many more times over, and go deeper into debt to his original debtor, and Neville, and Frank (John Goodman) too. The Gambler spends that week with Jim, observing the day-to-day business of his life, of a man desperately trying to keep his head above water, and mostly failing.

Wyatt’s direction is stylish, with a sleek, Michael Mann Jr. vibe, and the new screenplay by William Monahan is mostly sharp (though the half-assed, halfhearted romance with a star student, well played by an underused Brie Larson, is quite the nonstarter). Wyatt pulls from a deep bench of ace character actors, and if Andre Braugher and Richard Schiff are wasted in single-scene throwaway roles, he gives us the invaluable John Goodman playing nicely against type as a tough guy — his speech about “the position of ‘fuck you’” is perfection — and hands Williams his best role since The Wire. It’s a loose, funny performance that reminded me, oddly enough, of the best of Christopher Walken, from his funky readings of non-sequitur dialogue (“I’m gonna get myself an avocado farm”) to the wonderful little moment when, apropos of nothing in particular, he dances down a hallway, in long shot, with a pretty girl.

And this brings us back to Wahlberg. There’s a key beat near the end where he goes off into a little trance, a look that brought me back to how great (and under-appreciated) he was in Boogie Nights. And then there are his classroom scenes, which are the picture’s nicest surprise; they’re less “lectures” than searching, performative monologues, and never less than believable, recalling how well he’s handled such bulky text and big ideas in films like I Heart Huckabees. The Gambler is just shy of a great movie — it doesn’t quite add up like it should — but it is a reminder that there’s a very fine actor lurking in Mark Wahlberg. It’s just a matter of pairing him with material that matches his intelligence, and ours.

The Gambler is out Christmas Day.