Written by Vince Freeman
If you have ever thought that it would be impossible to combine bleak, Russian introspective philosophy with a noir thriller, THE GAMBLER has proven you right. However, if you like movies that take themselves very seriously and have a plethora of expository, pedantic dialogue that discusses the value of one weak man’s existence ad nauseam this movie is for you. It starts with simple yet profound questions about the protagonist’s existence, continues to ask questions of his existence in every scene that follows and eventually ends with a question regarding his existence.
Highly stylized and listed as a crime-drama thriller, THE GAMBLER follows Jim Bennett, an under achieving, extremely verbose associate professor who appears to hate himself and his life because his lack of talent does not allow his desire to be a great writer. In actuality, Jim is a self-destructive, spoiled, poor little rich kid who feels sorry for himself because he cannot have everything he wants. Many of the scenes in this movie involve Jim abrasively telling anyone who will listen that perfection is the only goal people should have. Those who are not lucky enough to be great should not try to achieve anything and should merely admire the selected few whom fate has blessed accomplish their goals.
Jim’s self-loathing manifests itself in the form of a gambling addiction which is enabled by people continually loaning him money. This, despite the fact that he has yet to pay any of them back and that he literally throws their money away right in front of them. This happens twice in beginning of the story when Jim goes to an underground casino located in a Malibu Hills mansion run by Mr. Lee, a very powerful Korean gangster. Jim appears to be a regular at the casino but a non-Asian cocktail waitress whose surprise at seeing Jim implies that she knows him. This is odd because Jim walks around like he owns the place which would indicate that these two would most likely have seen each other before. This is the only moment in the entire film that does not lead to an excessively wordy interaction between Jim and another character. The casino is crowded with high-rollers who fill every table except one empty blackjack table which just happens to be Jim’s game of choice.
There are many forms of gambling but Jim’s version consists of him betting everything he can on one hand of blackjack. Like in the Dostoyevsky story of the same name, Jim wins his first couple of hands which is used to build what little suspense there is in the film. Then, as expected, Jim loses everything because he keeps trying to double his money on every subsequent hand. Not much suspense when the audience knows exactly what is going to happen but this movie has to at least try to earn the label of thriller. After Jim’s failure at the blackjack table, he visits Mr. Lee in his office where they discuss Jim’s debt of $240,000. A ticking clock is established by Mr. Lee when he tells Jim that he wants the money Jim owes him in seven days. This is intended to add suspense but there is none because Jim does not care about the passage of time, just like he does not care about how much money he loses with his gambling system.
Still at the casino, Jim runs into Neville, a black gangster who may or may not know Jim but who lends him $50,000 after watching how Jim throws his money away. Meeting Neville at the casino is fortuitous for Jim because it allows him his first dark-rooted introspective onslaught about the meaninglessness of his existence. Jim quickly gambles this money away at another vacant blackjack table using his patented system. He finally leaves the casino at dawn, indicating a long night of gambling, despite the fact that he threw all his borrowed money away within a matter of minutes.
Based on Jim’s clothes, he goes directly from the casino to his college classroom where he teaches literature to possibly the most gifted class in the history of education. His students include the second ranked amateur tennis player (who has only been playing for five years), the top ranked college basketball player and a reserved student who is a “genius and an artist” writer. This genius student, Amy Phillips, just happens to be the cocktail waitress who was so surprised to see Jim at the underground casino full of dangerous people. This is quite a dichotomy considering that Amy “hides in the middle” because according to her it’s “the safest place to be.” This scene overflows with meandering exposition poorly disguised as a bitter and very long-winded lecture by Jim on how unfair the dissemination of talent is among people. Jim’s tone with his students is unnecessarily confrontational and insulting but at least it’s consistent with the way he talks to everyone else he encounters in the film, including the gangsters from whom he continues to borrow money.
Jim visits his mother, Roberta, and we learn where Jim gets his propensity to wax philosophic every chance he gets. In the three conversations Jim has with Roberta and the one conversation she has with her bank’s employee, the filmmaker shows how abrasive, demanding and mouthy Roberta is. The relationship between Jim and his mother is contentious and spiteful, so the motions they go through regarding their feelings come across as tacked on because their relationship only serves to add more unnecessary explanation of Jim’s character. Perhaps Jim and Roberta are too much alike exemplified by the fact that each line of their dialogue could be spoken by either character.
The third gangster introduced in the film is Frank who builds up the amount of Jim’s debt in the same way Roberta does, as if it is an inconceivable and unspeakable sum. Not that $240,000 is not a large amount of money, especially when it is owed to gangsters, but the way it is presented comes across as manipulative and unrealistic. Frank, like the other two gangsters to whom Jim owes money, knows everything about Jim. This is convenient because it allows Jim to not have to explain himself and gives him more opportunity to whine about his disgust with existence. The gangsters in this film care more about Jim and his well being than his mother does, despite their desire for Jim to pay back the money he owes. They even act as his conscience throughout the film. They continually endure Jim’s long-winded diatribes about how futile life is, which demands his self-destructive behavior. Fortunately for Jim, the gangsters are more than willing to endure Jim’s self-indulgent philosophical musings.
As is to be expected, Jim and Amy begin a romance without any form of courtship other than Jim going on and on about how horrible it is to be him. This culminates in the most blatantly expository statement of the entire film (which is saying a great deal considering that virtually every word of dialogue is exposition). Jim tells Amy, “I want unlimited things. I want everything. I want real fucking love. I want a real fucking house and I want a real fucking thing to do every day and I’d just rather die if I don’t get it.” This monologue is so incredibly on-the-nose that even Jim has to ask, “Did I just say that out loud?” Considering the two-dimensionality of their relationship, this really turns Amy on.
This film repeats the same beats over and over with Jim continually borrowing money from the same three gangsters. These poor gangsters must endure listening to Jim whine about how horrible his meager existence is and how his self-destructive behavior is an absolute necessity and not his fault. Not only do the gangsters put up with Jim’s blathering but they also make the most obvious statements regarding a person’s motivations in any film ever made.
The movie finally ends with Jim making one last bet in front of the three gangsters to whom he owes so much money. This occurs because Jim demands that everyone of them meet him in another underground Korean casino where they can do nothing except watch him gamble their money away yet again. Jim wins the bet, pays off his debts, overcomes his addiction and resolves to go after what he wants. This ending, while extremely welcome, is very disappointing because Jim does not learn anything that enables his predictable change of heart. He just decides to stop gambling by making the dumbest bet of the entire movie. Ironically, Jim says nothing about what made him suddenly break free of his obsession and his all consuming self-pity. A disappointing ending but a fitting one considering how unfulfilling it is to watch this film.