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Mark Wahlberg plays to lose in 'The Gambler'

Mark Wahlberg stars in "The Gambler," a remake of the James Caan film about a man whose compulsive losing is meant to have a heroic dimension.

THE 1974 James Caan movie "The Gambler" was released to an America wherein gambling was confined to Nevada, the racetracks and illicit sites.

In the 40 years since, gambling's become mainstream and ubiquitous - a large source (via lottery and proliferating casinos) of revenue for state governments and also for Wall Street, which used various forms of it to help inflate and deflate the destructive real-estate bubble.

Now there's a new version of "The Gambler," starring Mark Wahlberg and written by "Departed" scribe William Monahan, so expectations are set for a movie that will take on the subject of gambling's infiltration of American life.

So, it's puzzling, and a bit disappointing, to find this new version of the story taking its cue from the '74 film - gambling as an underground activity, in private homes and warehouses, with secret knocks and fearsome bouncers.

Wahlberg stars as Bennett, a writer and literature professor who teaches by day and plays blackjack by night. It would be a stretch, though, to say that he gambles. That would imply that Bennett wishes to win. In fact he seems determined to lose, and his losing appears to be a method to shed the baggage of materialism (his mother, Jessica Lange, is wealthy).

This places Bennett deeply and dangerously in debt and yields one of the movie's better lines. It also has his creditors wondering what he doesn't like about being good-looking (they take some of his debts out on his face) and rich.

It's a good question.

The movie doesn't make a ton of sense but can be enjoyed for its tasty Monahan dialogue, an unusual combination of tough-guy wisecracking and literary panache. The latter is not at all out of place, since there are several scenes of Bennett lecturing, incisively, on the nature of talent and genius in literature.

The academic setting provides Bennett's love interest, a gifted student (Brie Larson) who's flattered by his attention.

Larson was wonderful in "Short Term 12" but hasn't much to do to here, except listen to Bennett romanticize his compulsive losing as some kind of search for purity.

This leads to an improbable scene of Bennett blowing a large sum of money, after which Larson's character lunges lustily at him.

Because you're never more attractive to a woman than when you've just lost all of your money.

Still, the intricately scripted "Gambler" is fun to listen to (including the music), with an up-for-it supporting cast that includes John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams.