I’m about to recommend a movie to you. That alone is a risky bet, but there is rationale behind my madness.
I’m talking about “The Gambler,” starring Mark Wahlberg, one of the major holiday releases out now. Critics are not hating it, but to be honest they’re comparing it to Applebees on a street full of fine steak houses.
I get that. It’s not a perfect movie. But I found it perfectly entertaining, and, as a novelist and especially as someone who is in touch with thousands of other novelists (via this site), it’s my job to alert you to this opportunity.
See it for the script.
See it for an in-your-face wake-up call.
The elegant, rapturous, too-true dialogue in this film could only come from the mind of a true writer – writing about writing – as spoken by an actor who embellishes it with the grit and emotion and angst that writing fiction with professional ambitions culls from us.
He speaks the truth. And he nails it better than anything I’ve ever heard.
If you want to know why so many writing teachers (present company included) seem grumpy and impatient, go see this movie… if nothing else than for the second scene, in which Wahlberg gives his students a stark lesson in writing reality.
The hero – Wahlberg – is one of us.
His day job is teaching “the modern novel” at a major Los Angeles university, with a well reviewed and under-achieving “first novel” under his belt.
Maybe now you understand why I related to this guy.
He has an attitude and a point of view on it all. And that‘s why you should see this. It just might shift you into a higher writing gear.
Like an alcoholic driven to drink to drown out his anxieties, Wahlberg is driven into the dark world of high stakes gambling (where the odds are significantly better than trying to crack the bestseller code), populated with organized crime factions and loan sharks who make the horrifying stakes abundantly clear.
The film is inspired by the 1962 classic of the same name starring James Caan, which was written by the legendary James Toback (who also wrote “The Player,” which you should rent tonight if you’ve never seen it).
That’s part of the problem for the reviewers who aren’t loving it, it doesn’t compare in terms of overall cinematic art (not all of the risks the director takes pay off). But there is much here to enjoy, and much to learn in terms of character arc, structure, story world and all things visual (stunningly artful). John Goodman, in particular, gives the performance of his life as a loan shark who could go monologue for monologue with Aaron Sorkin .
If you write fiction, the first twenty minutes are worth every dime and every minute of your time. The opening shows Wahlberg behaving recklessly in an underground gambling club, but it’s that second scene – Walhberg lecturing to a room full of wide-eyed, terrified college writing students – that just might give you the wake-up call you need.
I frequently tell writers who come to me for coaching that they’re not thinking big enough, deep enough, artfully enough. If you’re one of them and aren’t quite sure what any of that even means… here’s a film that will explain it better and more powerfully than I could ever hope to.