The Gambler

James Toback’s semi-autobiographical screenwriting debut, about a college professor with existential despair and a gambling problem, became an attention-getting James Caan movie in 1974. Now — luck of the draw — it’s become an attention-seeking Mark Wahlberg movie in 2014. Lately opinions have differed on whether Wahlberg deserves to become a reservist LAPD cop, but at least The Gambler makes clear that we must never allow him to teach college English. (Even as a high school science teacher in The Happening, Wahlberg already was pushing his luck.) Here he dons smart-fella glasses and natters dejectedly through a course on “The Modern Novel,” unfortunately not an elective, then switches to sunglasses for some underworld thrill seeking and general striving to make this obvious vanity project look cool. It’s not cool, but it is soulless, shallowly characterized, and frequently insulting to the acting talent on hand — including Michael Kenneth Williams and John Goodman, as loan sharks, and even Wahlberg himself, whose real career triumph has been to not always seem as ridiculous as he does here. Jessica Lange gives her all to the role of our anti-hero’s embittered mother, which is more than the barely-sketched role deserves; and, as his reportedly most precocious student and de facto lover (ugh), Brie Larson lights up the dimly tinted surroundings with beauty and intelligence. The rest, as scripted by William Monahan and directed by Rupert Wyatt, is blustering and posturing — and not realizing that not all of us find it that interesting to watch people play blackjack.