Written by William Monahan
The Gambler is a bit of a slog to get through. It’s a story about a man who likes to get beaten up. This character, Jim, turns out to be a UCLA English professor who spends his lectures (in very long scenes) discussing his life philosophy and various ways of saying the same thing: nothing matters. He’s an existentialist, but he has enough libido to lust after a student of his. Fortunately for him he doesn’t need to pursue this girl, Amy, because she pursues him for some reason.
The script feels like a fifteen year-old’s idea of what it means to be cool. Jim is a high roller, playing with lots of money, he’s snarky, he’s usually the smartest guy in the room, and he doesn’t take shit from anyone, even as he’s beaten down by nearly everyone in the story. The fact that Jim seems to want to die is used as a reason he should be considered cool. This script romanticizes a severely flawed character, and rather than put him on a road to redemption, as it at first seems, the story ends with him indulging in his own addiction (which the story refuses to acknowledge is an addiction) and getting lucky. Then he turns to his salvation, Amy, an incredibly underdeveloped character who is only there to admire him, again, for some strange reason.
The first sequence of the story follows Jim as he navigates the high roller room of a bunch of gamblers in some Hollywood Hills home. The whole first sequence takes place in here, and instead of the familiar set up (a ‘day in the life’ type of sequence), we spend all our time in this dark room with these unsavory characters. This sets up the world Jim is most comfortable in as well as the characters to whom he owes a lot of money.
Sequence two begins when we see Jim in the real world, at his job as a UCLA English professor. The inciting incident isn’t a plot device, as it normally is. Instead the inciting incident is our changing relationship to Jim’s character through the sudden reveal that this wild card of a dude is somehow a college professor. In the second sequence we get one of several very long scenes that allow Jim to spew his bullshit which he (and the script itself) considers sacred. What Jim says about life and his all or nothing philosophy seems a thinly veiled description of what the writer himself might believe. After all, Jim himself is a novelist, but he derides the profession most notably because it didn’t make him rich.
Now, if Jim was later called on his bullshit, then maybe this would all be more interesting. After all, he’s very delusional, very prideful even if he wouldn’t admit it, and he’s clearly very intelligent. But he’s defined, it seems, by his hubris, but he never gets his comeuppance. I really can’t stand when a story loves its protagonist too much. You should keep your main character honest, give them some victories but more importantly challenge him or her, forcing them to grow. What this story does is shower its character with praise, most clearly through Amy, a silent student who knows about his “other life,” but whom admires him like a Greek God and for no discernible reason.
The relationship between Jim and Amy is meant to be some kind of love story, but it feels emotionally abusive on some level, even if there’s no clear emotional abuse. Jim only ever uses the people in his life (including his wealthy parents who spot him money when he finds himself in yet another precarious situation), and that should mean that the script itself knows that this pattern of behavior will continue with Amy. When she presents herself there should be the set up that she will come to see him as he is, but that never happens. Instead, Amy offers him the salvation he doesn’t deserve but that the script thinks he deserves because he’s ‘cool.’ What is it about stories like these (particularly in the form of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”) that insist there be a female character who can save the male character? No matter what else happens in the story, this dynamic suggests that the hero deserves to be saved, no matter how bad he is. Jim can and does screw up constantly in this story, and yet we get what’s intended to be a happy ending as he finally decides to give himself to Amy, like she’s just been waiting on the sidelines the whole time.
This story isn’t plotted like a conventional Hollywood drama, which it seems as though it will be. There is no clear “lock in” propelling us into act 2. Sure Jim owes a lot of people money, people who could destroy him, but he owes people a lot of money when the story begins. When I went through the script, I identified the “lock in” at around page 36, when one of the people to whom he owes money insist that he acknowledge that he’s a “scumbag gambler.” This moment being the lock in would suggest that the story is really about Jim’s path to redemption and not so much about the gambling and debts on the surface.
At the end of the third sequence, Jim goes to his mother to have his debts paid for, but he soon loses all the money pretty effortlessly. I think the midpoint is around the time his grandfather dies, though this moment isn’t full of the necessary impact to make it the midpoint of the story. Jim’s character arc doesn’t change dramatically in this moment, though I only considered it the midpoint because of where it fell in the story. Maybe you’d think that Jim losing all his mother’s money would be the midpoint, but that scene comes and goes so quickly, and it’s part of a sequence that chooses to emphasize his evolving relationship with Amy rather than the money.
And what’s frustrating about that is that his relationship with Amy never seems to matter. It just gives Jim something to do in between visits from the people to whom he owes money. And about those people, they constantly show up and threaten him, but with each recurring visit, the impact of someone threatening Jim’s life loses all meaning. And they have every right to kill him right then and there (using the logic of the world they’re so immersed in where a debt basically means death), yet they don’t. They constantly give Jim a longer leash, and there’s no good reason for it.
Jim’s one “superpower,” if you can call it that, is his willingness to die, which he makes perfectly clear to these people in his life. But he never feels like an authentically depressed character. Instead he calls attention to this death wish like he’s bragging about it. He’s a character who seems way too proud to die.
In terms of the plot, Jim eventually wins all his money back by borrowing it from someone and then convincing Lamar, one of his students who happens to be a star basketball player, to make sure UCLA doesn’t beat Michigan by more than 7 points. They have to beat the spread, in other words. Part of the intended conflict of this moment is that Jim is put up to this, and it’s meant to be a crossover between his two lives. His gambling debts are forcing him to reach out to an innocent student and drag him down. There’s a dilemma, will he do it? Well he does, and that’s fine, but what’s so silly about the scene is that Lamar tells him he’s done this before, making sure Jim knows he’s not at fault. But he is! Jim is going just about as low as we’ve seen him go so far, but the character he’s dragging down has to tell him that this isn’t his fault. It’s OKAY that Jim is a scumbag. He’s clearly not meant to be the shining symbol of mental health, but the script insists on making him “cool.” He’s so cool that everyone likes him. The students all adore him, one of them is in love with him, the faculty and the dean find him charming even as he speaks down to them, and… I don’t know, it’s irritating. This is a character who, it seems, will be forced to acknowledge his crappy life decisions. He’s forced to take money from his mother, then gamble it away, and he’s forced to look his ex-wife in the eye and examine the life he threw away. He should have to sit with the troubling realities of these situations, but the script maintains that he’s super awesome, and he’s right to throw it all away. His ex-wife is married to a marketer? How pathetic. You know what’s not pathetic? Going for it all. As Jim says, you either get it all or you get nothing. But that’s a horrible life philosophy, and Jim sucks as a person.
He’s an interesting character, sure, but the story doesn’t know what to deal with him. He’s like that wild, vaguely alcoholic friend you invite to a party, and then he starts doing cocaine and saying horribly insensitive things which he justifies by saying that life doesn’t matter, and you all let him say what he has to say because you’re scared to confront him. That’s how this story treats Jim. The story thinks he’s heroic, a tragic hero perhaps, but he gets what he wants in the end. It’s ludicrous.
This story became frustrating to read very quickly, and I will probably not see the movie. It has some interesting ideas, and I will say that it seemed to find a new spin on the gambling story. There have been plenty of gambling movies (California Split, Casino Royale, Mississippi Grind, Rain Man, Win it All, Hard Eight, 21, Casino to a degree, etc.), and that’s because, like boxing movies, there is inherent drama built into watching a character lose or win it all at a roulette table. So this story seems to focus on gambling not in the terms of the thrill of victory, but the necessary pain of defeat. It might sound kind of pretentious, but it’s admirable, possibly, to have a character fundamentally approach something we’re so familiar with from a different perspective. It’s just that the story never bothered to investigate that peculiar perspective.
They introduced us to this character that requires further examination, but they never went anywhere with him.