Alcoholics, drug addicts and other emotionally disturbed staples have been regularly presented for our edification on the screen, so it is high time that their deluded cousin, the obsessive bettor, got his day in the murk. A new film, The Gambler, provides us with a compelling characterization of the title figure—played by James Caan—even if the whole work fails to cover the spread.
The screenplay is by James Toback, a young New York Jewish professor who has been known to place a bet, while Caan portrays Axel, a young New York Jewish professor. But Axel is not a gambler—not really—any more than F. Scott Fitzgerald was a social drinker. So the title is somewhat misleading as well as a rip-off of Dostoevsky. Axel, if not altogether depraved, is, at best, in a state of anomie. The movie's ending even suggests that the gambling is incidental, that Axel has become a masochist in every phase of his life. A much better definition of the gambler comes earlier when Axel explains: "I like the uncertainty...the threat of losing." The movie is as joyless as this line suggests. Perhaps Dostoevsky would approve.
Both Toback and Caan have been involved with sporting themes before. Caan played the dying Brian Piccolo, struggling his best against a hand-me-down Love Story script, while Toback wrote an embarrassing little paean to Jim Brown. Happily, Toback was able to extract his pen from that treacle, and in Axel he has created a character both appealing and pathetic—and Caan has played just the right anti-hero chords.
Unfortunately, the bookie, Hips, is the only other character of substance, and he succeeds probably because he is an appendage to Axel, the flip side of a sick symbiotic relationship. The other characters are lost, their unintended disappearance hastened by dialogue that is banal or painfully melodramatic. Toback writes in a sort of neo-Drag-net style, with heavy, forced closers to scenes. Too bad that this telling portrayal had to be marred by such affectation, and gimmicky flashbacks, too.
Will The Gambler save betting souls? Gamblers Anonymous had placards posted in the theater where I saw the movie, and you won't believe this, but I swear I'm not putting you on: a man in front of me waited for the film to begin by marking the day's Racing Form. Perhaps Saturday's point spreads could be flashed on the screen in lieu of selected short subjects.