Mark Wahlberg as a literature professor? Talk about a long shot. "The Gambler" casts the South Boston former hoodlum as Jim Bennett, a promising novelist who has settled for teaching Shakespeare at a Los Angeles college. Jim, however, is also a gambling addict with ties to the underworld, so Wahlberg gets to split his role: the academic, which is a stretch, and the roughneck, a much safer bet. In the end, the actor breaks even.
Wahlberg's Jim has charm, talent and a serious self-destructive streak. He places insane bets with money borrowed from various bone breakers. He risks injury by mouthing off to his creditors; risks his job by dating a student, Amy (Brie Larson); risks the love of his mother (a terrific Jessica Lange) by frittering away her fortune. "I want unlimited things," Jim says. "And I want to die if I don't get it." As his debt level soars, Jim just might get his wish.
Wahlberg replaces another rough-edged actor, James Caan, in this remake of the 1974 film written by James Toback (a former teacher and gambling addict). Like Caan, Wahlberg can be electrifying in the casino, less so in the classroom. Both actors have pent-up energy and a so-shoot-me insouciance, but they can't convincingly hold forth on the great novelists. In both films, our hero feels like a contrivance.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt with flashy but superficial style, "The Gambler" overall rings false. Michael Kenneth Williams and John Goodman deliver fine comic performances as oddly cultured loan sharks, but instead of raising the stakes, these characters mostly just lecture Jim on his faults. Screenwriter William Monahan ("The Departed") puts amusingly eclectic references in their mouths -- from John Lennon to King George III -- but the effect is to turn Jim's ostensible plight into a big, harmless game.
"The Gambler" is too much in love with the sound of its own voice, and too proud of its pop-rock soundtrack (Billy Bragg, Pulp, Alan Price), to tell a compelling story. Wahlberg deserves credit for doubling down on an unlikely role, but "The Gambler" is a bust.