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'The Gambler' wagers big on talent and throws it all away

Reprinted from Thursday's editions. If Mark Wahlberg's new pic, The Gambler, feels like a stale rehash of existential tropes, that's because it is.

Reprinted from Thursday's editions.

If Mark Wahlberg's new pic, The Gambler, feels like a stale rehash of existential tropes, that's because it is.

 A disappointing thriller from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, The Gambler is a remake of the 1974 James Caan gem of the same name, which itself was loosely based on a 1867 novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the grandpapas of existentialism.

The original story is about a despairing, fatalistic antihero who'd rather sink into an abyss of chance events than take his fate in his own hands.

Refracted through so many Hollywood-cut lenses, its heart barely survives in the latest film.

Caan was mesmerizing as the gambling antihero in the original film, a picture rich with atmosphere and tension.

The remake isn't quite as dazzling.

Wahlberg, making his first real attempt to assay Drama with a capital D, turns in a too-restrained, strangely emotionless performance. He acquits himself well, although he simply can't match Caan's intensity.

Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a failed novelist who works as a literature professor by day and an inveterate - one is tempted to say degenerate - gambler by night.

A child of privilege, he was given the best of everything by his mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange in a stirring, memorable turn). He published his first novel to great acclaim. Six years later, he's all washed up as a writer.

His consolation is the classroom, where he performs with great aplomb. He's one of those cool-dude profs who bound across the classroom reciting Camus and Shakespeare. He considers most of his young charges mediocre, materialistic fools, and he's happy to tell them so to their faces. But he does nurture a couple of gifted undergrads, including Amy (an underutilized Brie Larson), a sensitive soul thirsty for knowledge and hungry for Jim's approval and love.

As the story opens, Jim is told by his dying grandfather that he won't get a cent of his fortune. Jim has to make it on his own.

And it seems he'd rather do anything but try.

In a rapidly moving, dynamic 10-minute sequence, he wins big at blackjack, then doubles down and loses everything; borrows money from a loan shark (The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams), wins a packet of money, then blows it on one play.

Just to make his life more miserable, he borrows more from another loan shark (John Goodman).

"Life's a losing proposition. Might as well get it over with," Jim says with some relish.

Despite terrific, witty performances by Williams and Goodman, most of the talent is wasted in this picture. And its contrived ending, a departure from the first film, is just plain silly.

The Gambler **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. With Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, Michael K. Williams, John Goodman. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, sexuality, some nudity)

Playing at: Area theaters.