A teacher gets in over his head as his gambling debts mount.
The Gambler is a pretty loose remake of the 1974 effort starring James Caan and was originally set up as a starring vehicle for Leo DiCaprio and frequent director Martin Scorsese. So when the version you're watching has Mark Wahlberg and Rise of the Planet of the Apes helmer Rupert Wyatt, you already know you lost the toss.
Wahlberg is in full on 'acting' mode here. You can only assume the face the 43 year old wears when he's out looking for an Oscar and the December US release suggest the studio had high hopes too. Well they really shouldn't have bothered, because The Gambler misses almost every mark it aims at.
The main issue is Wahlberg's Jim Bennett. He's a pretty terrible English lecturer by day and an even worse gambler by night, deep in debt to pretty much everyone around and contuinuing to feed his habit with more and more dangerous loans. We're supposed to feed of his commitment to chaos, to letting the chips fall where they may, but there's one big problem - he's a total loser, asshole, limpbrained fool.
I don't use any of those words lightly - throughout the film he demonstrates not only a complete lack of common sense but also absolutely no regard for the other people in his life. That's true for his mother (Jessica Lange) who goes out of her way to dig him out of a financial hole, only for him to lose the cash in the next scene. And then there's the utterly outrageous relationship with his student (a bright Brie Larson) who is slumming with this dickhole for no apparent reason.
Then there are the speeches - the long moments where Wahlberg extolls half-baked philosophy in front of a group of students who look at bored as the audience will be. It's all part of painting the character as some kind of anti-hero, but he's actually just a dude who wanders from one disaster to the next and expects his monied family to get him out of it.
It's no fault of the actor, he's doing the best he can with the material he's given, but you have to wonder just what Wyatt was thinking. A hero doesn't need to be pristine to get the audiences rooting for him but when he has no redeeming features its very difficult to invest in his quest, especially when he spends no time giving any explanation for why he does what he does.
The rest of the cast is working hard too, including Lange and a memorable John Goodman. But they're wasted in a story which doesn't know what it wants to say and even less how to tell it in a way that's at all entertaining.