Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a Los Angeles literature professor with a severe gambling addiction caused by his view of the world as either having it all or having nothing. This view goes unchanged even after the death of his grandfather, Ed (George Kennedy), who names Bennett his heir just before dying. Bennett ends up owing $240,000 to Lee (Alvin Ing), the proprietor of an underground gambling ring, and another $50,000 to Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams), a loan shark. Lee gives Bennett seven days to pay off his debts or be murdered.
During one of his classes, Bennett identifies student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) as a potential writing prodigy, having previously encountered her as a waitress at the gambling house. Bennett also singles out Dexter (Emory Cohen), a genius tennis star, and confronts Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), a student who does not pay attention in class and intends to become an NBA basketball player. He expresses his have-it-all-or-have-nothing view to the class, telling them that no one but Amy can have a career in literature. His cynical and condescending prediction is met with anger and resentment from his students. Amy develops a personal interest in the professor.
After class, Bennett visits his mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) at the family's luxury estate, but she says that she will not give him any more money. Bennett considers borrowing money from Frank (John Goodman), another loan shark, to consolidate his debts and buy himself some time, but refuses to do so after Frank's demands include that Bennett admit, "I am not a man." Bennett convinces Roberta to give him enough money to pay off his debts, expressing no gratitude to her, then during a trip to a casino with Amy gambles it all away. Baraka kidnaps Bennett, has him beaten and forces him into an ultimatum—if he does not convince Lamar to win one of his college basketball games by a margin of 7 points or less, he will murder Amy.
Bennett goes to Frank, who advises him to adopt a "fuck you" attitude towards life by getting enough money to be completely free. Frank lends him $260,000 to pay his debt to Lee, but also threatens to kill everyone in Bennett's personal life if he is not repaid. Lee's men assault Bennett when he comes to ask Lee to stake him $150,000, saying the only way he can pay his full $410,000 debt to Lee and Frank is to gamble and win. He uses the $150,000 to bribe Lamar into going along with the basketball point-shaving scheme. Bennett sends Dexter to Las Vegas to bet on the game with the $260,000 he got from Frank. Lamar succeeds, barely, so Bennett uses his winnings to pay his debt to Baraka, denying he knows anything about the large bet made in Vegas.
Bennett then convinces both Lee and Frank to meet him in a neutral gambling den, where he wagers enough money to pay both men off—if he wins—on a single roulette spin. Successful, he leaves the money at the club for Lee and Frank. The payment to Frank is more than he owed, but he refuses to take the "cream" when Frank offers to give back the overpayment. Bennett runs through the city to Amy's apartment, broke but free.
In August 2011, Paramount Pictures announced a remake of the 1974 film The Gambler with the original producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Intended as a directorial project for Martin Scorsese, it was reported that Leonardo DiCaprio was attached as the star and William Monahan would write the screenplay.
In a 2011 interview, screenwriter James Toback gave the autobiographical story of the original film's background and development, and criticized the idea of his film being remade.
Scorsese left the project and filmmaker Todd Phillips was in talks to take over as of August 2012. In September 2013, actor Mark Wahlberg and director Rupert Wyatt expressed interest in making the film.
As of October 17, 2013, Brie Larson was in talks to play the female lead role, alongside Wahlberg. On January 15, 2014, Emory Cohen joined the cast of the film, playing one of the professor's students.
Shooting began on January 20, 2014. Wahlberg was spotted during the filming of The Gambler on January 21, in Los Angeles. On February 3, 2014, Wahlberg was spotted on The Gambler set in Downtown Los Angeles. On February 13, Jessica Lange and Wahlberg were spotted again during filming. On March 13, there was a basketball scene filmed in Los Angeles.
On September 8, 2014, it was announced that Jon Brion would be scoring the music for the film, while on October 27, Film Music Reporter revealed that Theo Green also composed the score for the film. Universal Music released a soundtrack album for the film on December 15, which features songs from various artists.
The Gambler had its world premiere during the 2014 AFI Fest at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on November 10. Paramount previously set the film for a limited release in the United States on December 19, 2014, for an Oscar-qualifying run strategy, and planned to expand the film on January 1, 2015. But on December 5, Paramount announced the film would be released wide in cinemas on December 25, 2014, instead of the previous platform release plans.
On October 22, 2014, the first teaser poster and red band trailer were released. On November 5, 2014, the green band trailer was released.
The Gambler received a rating of 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 126 reviews, with an average rating of 5.6/10. The site's consensus reads, "Well-paced and reasonably entertaining in its own right, The Gambler still suffers from comparisons to the James Caan classic that inspired it." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 55 out of 100, based on 40 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Jessica Lange's performance has received critical acclaim. TheWrap wrote that Lange had one of her "meatiest film roles in ages." The Huffington Post described her performance as "ferocious" and capable of "knocking down William Monahan's profanity laced dialogue with gleeful abandon" Also, the Boston Herald described her work as "strikingly memorable", which Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Indiewire have agreed with, terming her "affecting", "stirring", and "terrific". James Berardinelli from ReelViews described her as "heartbreaking as the cold, rich widow who blames herself on some level for her son's failure." Chris Nashawaty from Entertainment Weekly lauded her acting as effortless by saying "[she] can do icy in her sleep..." Furthermore, Rex Reed from The New York Observer described her performance as "hard" and "venomous". Peter Travers from Rolling Stone described her performance as "reliably superb". Jeff Baker from The Oregonian stated that her acting is "fierce". Indiewire suggested Lange as a contender for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film received no Academy Award nominations in any category.