The Gambler combines some of todays most acclaimed and sought after actors, the hottest director, the finest screenwriter and the most interesting film composer to make a flaccid, laughable, lackluster flick. Not to say that there are no inspired moments, rather those moments are found within the pages of the screenplay and in the spirit of the original 70's version of the film. For fuck's sake, the thing is called The Gambler, yet the filmmakers take no chances whatsoever. The tension in the movie comes more from high stakes black jack, as the stakes for the characters are incredibly low. Considering the fact that loan sharks are going to murder the title character, the fact that friction and thrills are absent can actually be seen as an achievement. There is no excuse for making these silly attempts at recycling in this post-Charlie-Kaufman world. When movies like Inherent Vice, Birdman and Frank are making the festival rounds, there is no use for this brand of waste.
This is a problem with film festivals. In many ways, they have become award shows for movie stars who don't win awards. The indulgent introductions and congratulatory Q & A's pinpoint everything wrong with our modern media saturated society. Let's flashback to last year's festival when AFI facilitated an hour long conversation with Bruce Dern before screening the overrated Oscar hopeful, Nebraska. Dern pined for the days of old Hollywood, with stars whose mystique far surpassed anything human or relatable. When movie stars were allowed to be monsters. Marky Mark (of Funky Bunch fame) was introduced with the endowment of being the last real movie star. A title that is more insulting than complimentary. Why do we feel the need to celebrate celebrity in this country? If there is one good thing about social media (and there may only be one good thing) it has allowed us to break down the proscenium movie stars once hid behind. Thank the gods of modern media for Dan Harmon and Marc Maron.
Mark Wahlberg walks the red carpet during AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi. Photo courtesy of AFI and Paramount Pictures.
Walking out while Wahlberg talked about his career as if he had just won The Nobel Prize for acting, I wondered what it's worth to be involved in such a bloated, self-gratifying industry. Certainly, a case can be made for fear of death. That must be why Woody Allen is cranking out picture after picture at the age of seventy-eight. Perhaps there is a pretense in place that allows us to believe we will be immortalized, a clever, little lie that tells us we will never die. Judy Garland died over forty-five years ago, but chills ran up my arms when I heard her voice vibrate off the big screen in an AMC in Orange County just last year. Movies make the dead not only walk, but sing and dance. None of us want to simply cease to be. Even if The Gambler is trying to convince us its protagonist is struggling with similar issues, it's of no consequence. He feels more like a billboard than a person.
There is something deeper at work here. It is not a just a fear of death. Nobody is just afraid of death. People are afraid of life. Not having enough life. This is where The Gambler really missed the mark. There is a great wealth of metaphors inherent in gambling that so perfectly parallel the choices made in life. However, those potential ideas are stunted and suffocated, and you walk away with nothing at the end. Some of the best parts are passages in the dialogue (or monologue) when the context of the scenes are ridiculous and inescapably incongruous.
Mark Wahlberg stars in THE GAMBLER as part of AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi. Photo courtesy of AFI and Paramount Pictures.
It's not the worst movie, but it's not the best either. And the worst thing art can be is mediocre. If the movie were more ludicrous, more absurd, more insane, more melodramatic, it would be highly entertaining. Or if it were less polished, more dirty, more intense, more meditative, it would be a decent effort. Adversely, it really has no reason to exist. Especially not in the world of film festivals. You have John Goodman turning in a spectacular performance, but it's a waste. You have Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson doing solid work for nothing. Jon Brion supposedly co-composed the music, but there is no evidence of this at all. The soundtrack sounds like a parody of a 90's movie soundtrack with it's overabundant alt rock covers (in one scene in particular, the music is distractingly similar to the first Social Network trailer). The entire story is about this gritty, underground world, but they made it look pretty and polished and phony. It's like a lengthy, big budget car commercial.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because it's not just fear of death or a fear of not living enough that makes people dive headfirst into cinema. It matters because people who love movies, truly love movies, are sick. And for those people fallen ill, movies are medicine. That is what is infuriating about Mark Wahlberg being praised as some kind of golden idol. The whole thing was just one big jerk off. It wasn't even about the movie. It was about rich people kissing each other's asses and jerking each other off. AFI Fest is a great festival, with many interesting movies and exciting events, but this particular one was disappointingly and transparently shallow.