In “The Gambler,” a skeletal Mark Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, an English professor who years ago wrote a successful first and only novel and has now willingly sunk into a black hole of addiction to high-stakes gambling he has no desire to stop.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt and penned by William Monahan (“The Departed”), the movie is a remake of the 1974 movie that starred James Caan and was written by James Toback. The film was also inspired by the Dostoyevsky novella of the same name.
Wahlberg’s character Bennett has all the advantages of education, talent, looks and money, but is determined to toss that and everything else he owns away.
“For me, it was very different from anything I’ve ever done before,” Wahlberg said at a press conference in mid-December at the Mandarin Oriental in Manhattan to promote the film. “I am used to playing the underdogs, as opposed to the guy who has everything, but is trying to strip himself of all that and become the underdog.”
Bennett is literally a hollowed out man, so the director and star decided his character should be skinny. The Oscar-nominated actor (“The Fighter”) lost 60 pounds on his 200-pound frame by going on a liquid diet. His lips are an unhealthy eerie blue onscreen, which is from starvation, Wahlberg said.
Bennett’s world shifts between the unnamed university where he teaches literature to Los Angeles’ underground labyrinth of flashy gaming parlors where he carries his cash in a briefcase like a Wall Street executive. When we first see Bennett, he wins some money, loses that, loses again and borrows more and then loses that. Soon he’s in the hole for a quarter of a million to a Korean mobster (Alvin Ing) and a fast-talking loan shark, Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams).
As though this weren’t bad enough, Bennett hits up Frank (John Goodman), another scary loan shark, for more cash. Frank has some paternal instincts towards Bennett, but sees him as a bad credit risk and tells him menacingly, “If I give you money and you don’t pay me back, there are no rules.” He adds, “Do you understand the gravity of your situation?”
The best scenes in the film, of which there are sadly too few, are between Goodman and Wahlberg, where they trade barbs and the rhythm of the dialogue crackles. The two are a comical study in contrast; the shaven-headed Goodman, a mountain of a man wrapped only in a towel, and the mop-haired Wahlberg, so skinny he’s swimming in his expensive suit.
Other notable performances are by Brie Larson as a talented student who becomes Bennett’s love interest, and Jessica Lange as his brittle, blue-blooded mother who has bailed him out for the last time.
Along with Wahlberg, cast members Michael Kenneth Williams and Brie Larson, screenwriter William Monahan and director Rupert Wyatt, participated in the press event.
Asked how the role of Bennett resonated with him, Wahlberg noted, “I have a lot of people in my life who suffer from various addictions. Gambling was a big part of my upbringing, so those are things I can identify with.”
But he added that, “the big appeal to me was saying the words created by this gentleman.” He pointed to the screenwriter. “After working with him on ‘The Departed’ and working with him on ‘Mohave'” – due out later this year – “and him writing ‘American Desperado’ (Peter Berg) for us, so anytime you get to speak the words of William Monahan, I’ll be the first one to sign up.”
Looking back at his career, Wahlberg said, “When I think about all the various projects that I’ve done, and the different people that I’ve worked with, every day I just wake up and I pinch myself, I feel so lucky to have found my true calling,” which is “what really drives me and pushes me, and challenges me and allows me to learn and see the world.”
“The Gambler” was another opportunity for him to do something different, he noted. The actor never attended college, so he said he got to experience that vicariously through making the film, where he wandered around UCLA, attended lectures and met with professors. “I wondered about what my life would have been like.”
He recalled his first time on a movie set for the 1994 comedy “Renaissance Man,” directed by Penny Marshall and starring Danny DeVito. “Everybody else I met in the film world was just very different from me. But when I met them, they spoke the same language, and they seemed to be from the same sort of place that I was from.”
He added, “And I remember being on set and it just reminded me, oh my god, all I ever did was watch movies with my Dad. I’d seen this movie when I was a kid. The first movie I ever saw in the theatre was ‘Hard Times’ with Charles Bronson. I knew who John Garfield was and Robert Ryan were before I knew who Robert Redford was or certainly Tom Cruise, the guys who were like me,” he said. “The stars during the time I started making movies. I didn’t really know who any of those guys were, so it was really a miracle that I found my way into acting.”
As for how he found his way into the character of Jim Bennett, Wahlberg said he looked to the source material and did preparation with the director. “I had a clear understanding of who Jim was, where he was going and how he was going to get there. Between the atmosphere Rupert created around the set,” there were also “all the other actors that really came with their A-game. One thing that Bill really does in a really amazing way, he’s created all these juicy characters, so when it’s John Goodman’s moment, it’s John Goodman’s moment and I’ll still able to be there reacting to him, or Jessica Lange, or Kenney, whoever it was, so I was able to be there in the moment and react to him.”
He added, “With all the different demands that came along with playing the part, I knew that there was still a light at the end of the tunnel. I’d had my life back. As much as it tortured my wife and everybody else that had to be around me, I just stayed in the moment. There was so much to do and you couldn’t get away from it anyway. I would go home, and I wouldn’t talk to my wife and my kids the way that I would speak to my students in the classroom, but it would certainly be in the back of my mind,” he laughed. “I came home with a couple of doozies I could have used, but I would have gotten into a lot of trouble.”
After the press conference, I asked Wahlberg about his scenes with John Goodman, who he described as “brilliant.”
“He’s one of the most underrated actors, certainly the best character actor working today,” said Wahlberg. “A joy to work with. It’s nice to see somebody come in so prepared, so focused. I remember one time he flubbed one line in that entire eight-page monologue. He was so upset with himself. I said don’t worry, John, we have all day.”
As for scenes with Goodman where he’s nearly naked and Wahlberg looks like he could desperately use a sandwich, the actor laughed, “I love seeing him naked.”
I asked Wahlberg about his first solid meal after they wrapped. “A giant breakfast, pancakes, eggs, home fries, bacon, an English muffin, and of course, I ate until I was sick,” he laughed.