In chemistry, a catalyst is something that makes a chemical reaction happen more quickly.
In narrative theory, a catalyst is a character or event that spurs the plot forward, usually by inducing the main character to commit an action that gets everything else rolling.
In The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg plays a man who’s life is a gigantic chemical equation, and he’s scrambling to keep the whole thing in balance so it doesn’t blow up in his face.
Enter the catalyst.
Ok, maybe that’s a little reductionist, but any critical conversation of The Gambler is inextricably tied to its catalyst, and a positive reaction to it isn’t necessarily the same thing as giving the whole film a thumb up or down. This makes The Gambler a bit of an odd film to review, because many of the parts I’m most interested to dig into have only a partial relationship to my overall opinion of the film.
So let’s start with the overall opinion: I liked The Gambler, and I liked it quite a lot. Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a professor of English literature who spends his nights wagering unseemly amounts of money at underground high dollar gambling establishments. There are no half measures with Jim, only all or nothing, and it’s this idea that underpins the entire narrative. The first of Jim’s classes we see, he expounds on the idiocy of doing anything at all unless you have the capacity to be great at it, using as an example a student who is one of the best tennis players in the country…and didn’t start playing until high school, and only then because the tennis players “had the best weed.” Greatness – the undeserved and unequal allocation of talent across humanity. Particularly through the first half of the movie it plagues Jim, and so he escapes, in his ill-content with merely “good,” by driving himself deeply into debt with several unsavory types.
The Gambler excels when it’s playing high philosophy like this against the actions and interactions of its characters. Is there any limit for Jim, anything that would be an adequate consolation prize? Maybe mentoring a star pupil? Or contentment with a stable, well-paying job? Or the backing of a wealthy family? But The Gambler undercuts these motives, asking whether the Great American Novel is worth writing if no one will read it, or if a job where Jim has to pass through athletes to please the university is worth protecting, or if a mother who ran his father out of his life is worth loving. Or if being up half a million dollars at a blackjack table is worth not trying to double up. It would be enough to pigeonhole Jim as a hack philosopher dealing in James Bond movie titles – The World is Not Enough! Die Another Day! – if he weren’t so obviously intelligent.
All of that is supremely engaging, but it very quickly begs the question – how is this sustainable? If Jim is wantonly gambling with his very life, what will change to make him find middle ground between the unachievable ALL and his own quickly approaching death?
And here is where our catalyst, Brie Larson, comes in. Larson, who lit up 2013 SXSW winner Short Term 12, plays Amy, a student in Jim’s class whom he says has top-tier writing talent. Amy becomes aware of Jim’s “other life” and begins to insinuate herself into his in a romantic capacity. The idea, then, is that she might finally be what forces Jim to call a halt to his own self-destructive habits.
That right there is the first problem, because in all the philosophizing The Gambler proffers, a nuanced discussion of love is never included. The Gambler is highly concerned with existentialism, but for most in the film the answer to the question of existence is finding comfort. A collegiate basketball player with a balky knee wants to turn pro before it gives out, or a loan shark expounds on money’s ability to let you say, “F*** you,” to anyone you want to. But this isn’t a sufficient answer for Jim, who comes out of a comfortable background. So it feels right that he’d be looking for something else, but the leap to “love and human relationships” is a pretty big one in this instance.
But ok, let’s assume that love is a legitimate motivation for Jim. There’s still a problem with the way Amy is employed, starting with the fact that she’s not in nearly enough of the movie. If love is the answer the movie wants Jim to believe in, then that makes Amy nearly as important as Jim’s debts and the men who hold them, narratively speaking. But Amy gets maybe two scenes alone with Jim. There’s no sense of a developing relationship, something that’s especially important because Jim is given a chance to escape with Amy before the conclusion of the film and doesn’t take it. We need to know what she’s stirred up in him, what has changed to convince him that his all-or-nothing lifestyle isn’t actually what he wants. And that can’t be getting roughed up a little, because it seems more than likely that’s happened before. Also it would be nice if Amy as a character could be described as more than “the catalyst.”
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Can the drink be good even if the stick that stirs it is a little rotten? I guess my answer, as far as The Gambler is concerned, is “yes.” The second half of the movie doesn’t really follow through with the philosophical thriller the first half promises, or at least not as much as I would like it to. So I guess you could call the first half of the movie pseudo-philosophical posturing. But if so, it’s still pseudo-philosophical posturing I really enjoyed, and it’s not as thought he second half leaves it entirely flat. There’s still intense interest in what makes a guy like Jim Bennett tick, and Mark Wahlberg does a good job of mixing his deep pain and existential ambivalence into a character who does arc even if the motivation for doing so is a little weak. Brie Larson is severely underutilized, and most of the movie’s ills might have been solved by making her a more central figure, but The Gambler does enough right to be a heck of a ride anyways.