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AFI Fest: Wahlberg's 'Gambler' doesn't break the bank

Mark Wahlberg's 'The Gambler' doesn't break the bank at #AFIFEST.

After the world premiere of Mark Wahlberg's new movie, "The Gambler," Monday night at the AFI Fest, a five-minute highlight reel of the actor's career played for the audience at the Dolby Theatre before Wahlberg came on stage for a post-screening Q&A.

It was an enviable montage, underscoring the number of great movies Wahlberg has made ("Boogie Nights," "The Departed," "The Fighter" among them) and how his work in these films has often been taken for granted. David O. Russell, who has directed Wahlberg in three movies, once told me, "[He's] from the Spencer Tracy school of acting. You know, ‘Don’t let them catch you do it.’ It’s not showy, but not many people can do it.”

"The Gambler," a remake of the 1974 James Toback-written drama about a free-falling college English professor given seven days to pay off a substantial gambling debt, lands on the showier side of Wahlberg's work. His character doesn't really want to make things square. He's full of self-loathing over his privileged upbringing, desperately wanting something real he can call his own. He gambles because he doesn't have it and believes he never will. He's unafraid of oblivion.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes") and written by William Monahan ("The Departed"), "The Gambler" works as a stylish, fitfully persuasive character study, though it doesn't do its supporting cast -- particularly its underserved women, Brie Larson and Jessica Lange -- any favors. Larson's love interest, in fact, stands as one of the most ill-defined characters in recent memory.

Wahlberg, Wyatt and John Goodman (playing a chrome-domed loan shark in a brief, but juicy turn) answered questions after the movie, though the focus was mostly on Wahlberg. The 43-year-old star called his role in "The Gambler" the most difficult part in his career, saying that, as a guy who dropped out of school in the eighth grade (but went on to earn his GED), playing a literature professor was a bit daunting.

Whether academy voters will respond to Wahlberg's serious turn is open to question, as his character isn't particularly sympathetic and the movie itself has its share of issues. But Wahlberg apparently does have the support of one academy member -- James Caan, who starred in the 1974 film.

"I showed him the movie last week," Wahlberg said. Then, gesturing toward his face: "No scars, no blood."

"The Gambler" will open Dec. 19 with a one-week Oscar-qualifying run before its Jan. 2 wide release.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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