This movie is so full of clichés that you have a basic decision to make at the outset: just roll with all the clichés or walk away and forget it? If you choose the latter, there’s nothing else to talk about. If you choose the former, well, welcome to the binary world of “The Gambler,” where everything, no matter how complicated it appears, boils down to a simple decision. Either you do or you don’t.
Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a middle-aged guy with his hair still too long who teaches literature at a nearby college. Cush job. Most of the students need some kind of English credit. This prof is smart, articulate, down-to-earth, resourceful and takes the time to know who his students are. He also leads a double life; he’s an impulsive gambler. You either have the guts to bet big or you don’t.
We’re not talking about people who waste their days pulling the one-armed bandit in grungy lounges. Nor are we talking about a craps shooter carefully playing the mathematical percentages in Vegas. We’re doing the back rooms here where the real players are. The ones who don’t blink at a $10,000 bet at the blackjack table. Or a $20,000 bet on the roulette wheel. Always black. You either win or lose.
We first meet the professor when he’s sitting beside his father on his deathbed, except Jim can’t seem to give his undivided attention. Even there he’s looking at a basketball game on his phone. Afterwards, he immediately stops at a clandestine gambling house and keeps making “doubling up” blackjack bets until he finally loses. As if he really wants to lose. Then he owes the shady thugs who run the illegal establishment, and that, of course, puts him squarely in the company of cruel gangsters who don’t care where he gets the money. You either pay up or you die.
Obviously, his rich mother (Jessica Lange) is a source, and she does the cliché thing of giving him just enough to cover his debts and telling him, “No more.” The professor lectures his class that a true genius, like Shakespeare, is born not made. And natural talent is a gift. Three students in the room, the ranked tennis player, the star basketball player and the creative writer, all stand out for what they possess that all the others don’t. Sorry, boys and girls, life’s not fair. Get over it. You either got it or you don’t.
Of course the biggest cliché is for the prof to take up with one of the students, and though he says he’s way past that, he’s not, really. It’s just another form of self-indulgent addiction and his personality wouldn’t deny himself the cheap thrill. See, what he doesn’t have in his pitiful life is anything resembling love, which he seems to try to compensate for by attempting to feel something, anything, at the gaming table, even if it’s depression. Or is he really suicidal and hoping to let the hulking muscle men do it for him? Of course, like Kenny Rogers says in his song “The Gambler,” every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser. And, he might have added, every gambler’s a winner, and every one also a loser. It’s all in the timing. It’s all in making the big play at exactly the right moment. And then being willing to walk away for good. You either make it or you don’t.
Can the professor do that? Does he even want to? And how many students would he need to corrupt to get there? No, these characters aren’t very likeable. And really, every one is a caricature. But somehow we can’t take our eyes off the roulette wheel. Because it if comes up black, just this one time, when we’ve bet everything on that one chance… well, how can we not stay to see if it comes up black? You either start a new life, or you don’t.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.