Sundance 2015: ‘Mississippi Grind’ and ‘The End of the Tour’ are two for the road

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mississippi Grind': Sundance Review.

There’s a specific internal logic that governs road movies. “I have problems with money,” says Gerry, our hero in Mississippi Grind, when a beautiful young woman offers him a glimpse of kindness Here is a man who’s been a loser for so long that waving people away is the only thing he can be sure will work.

The moody, measured intelligence and exceptional skill with actors long evinced by filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson,” “Sugar”) once again serves them well in “Mississippi Grind,” a bittersweet, beautifully textured road movie that plays like a conscious throwback to the lost souls and open highways of 1970s American cinema.With gorgeous wife Blake Lively taking the reigns with breastfeeding their baby daughter, Violet, Ryan decided that he wanted to get in on the ‘fun’ too.

Two characters—it is almost always just two—vibe off one another in the confined space of a car, revealing essential selves, embarking on what’s inevitably a journey of self-discovery, moving ever forward, together. That statement encapsulates both the beauty and the limitations of this latest film by writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, a meandering road movie enriched by its fine-grained study of character and milieu, but somewhat lethargic and momentum-deprived in terms of narrative. Starring a never-better Ben Mendelsohn as a desperate poker player who embarks on a high-stake gambling trip through the South with his personal good-luck charm (Ryan Reynolds) in tow, this low-key but emotionally rich journey may not deliver the narrative oomph that some audiences may crave from their tales of addiction and redemption, spelling modest commercial impact. Still, admirers of the filmmakers’ previous work will find the rambling ride intoxicating, not least for its affectionate tip of the hat to Robert Altman’s California Split. Still, discerning arthouse-goers will warm to the film’s superb performances, haunting sense of place and willingness to meander, as well as its sly rumination on the mysterious interplay of fate and friendship in shaping an individual’s destiny.

While the couple has yet to reveal the name of their little one, Reynolds opened up about fatherhood for the first time at Sundance. “It’s amazing that you can be that exhausted and that happy at the same time,” he told People, calling life with Lively as first-time parents “great.” Reynolds and Lively have been out of sight since the birth, and the actor revealed he’s been getting down and dirty (with diapers, we imagine). “I gotta jump in and do all those sorts of things,” he said. And living up to that expectation, two of the buzzier entries in the fest’s early days happen to feature duos traveling for extended periods in cars on, yes, you guessed it, journeys of self-discovery.

Arriving just in time to wash away the unfortunate memory of Paramount’s Mark Wahlberg drama “The Gambler,” “Mississippi Grind” gives us, by contrast, a protagonist whom we believe completely as a man consumed by his addiction, yet also complicated enough to be defined by more than one layer of identity. As played with extraordinary control (but also crackles of live-wire intensity) by Australian actor Mendelsohn, Gerry, an unhappy 44-year-old from Dubuque, Iowa, isn’t the sort to lay all his cards on the table right away.

It’s frustrating for the baby and frankly disturbing for me… not well is the answer [to how it went].” Reynolds temporarily left baby duty to support his new movie, Mississippi Grind. Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Animal Kingdom) is Gerry, a flat-tire of a man washed up on the shoals of midlife with a crushing gambling addiction and loan shark debt to his eyeballs. With creditors at Gerry’s heels, Curtis agrees to stake him on a road trip down the Mississippi toward New Orleans, where they can buy in at a legendary poker game. But Mississippi Grind acknowledges a debt to a whole spate of films from that decade — loose-limbed portraits of free spirits, drifters, disarming reprobates and likeable losers.

The opening setup of Fleck and Boden’s script — in which a handsome gent in his 30s named Curtis (Reynolds) strides into a casino, plops himself down at a poker table and talks up a genial storm as he buys Gerry a bourbon — shows the latter man doing little more than quietly reacting, wondering exactly how to respond to this friendly, charismatic stranger in his midst. When he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a loose-limbed charisma machine fond of making grand pronouncements such as “The journey is the destination” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” Gerry believes he’s found good luck incarnate.

The film that put the writer-directors on the Sundance map in 2006, Half Nelson, was only in part about the drug addiction of its main character, a floundering inner-city middle-school teacher played by Ryan Gosling in what is still among his best performances. He seems to have a woman in every port and contacts throughout the underworld of private casinos. (I don’t know about you, but when I travel the country I end up booking rooms on Hotels.com.) Curtis is using Gerry, he simply has to be, but we just don’t know toward what end.

In the same way, this new film is less a direct examination of the compulsion of gambling, with its rollercoaster highs and lows, than it is a soulful reflection on the desperation of men who buy into the unreliable dream that a windfall will satisfy their inarticulate longings. When he’s not sleepwalking his way through his job as a real-estate agent, Gerry is gambling (or listening to endless audio recordings with advice on how to up his game), a ruinously expensive hobby that has resulted in a pile of debts overseen by a loan shark (Alfre Woodard). That subdued air of melancholy, along with a gentle strain of humor, runs through the film much like the river that shapes the two men’s journey as they head from Iowa, via multiple gambling stops, to a $25,000-stake high-roller poker game in New Orleans.

And while the tone is relaxed and playful, the underlying sadness comes through, perhaps most poignantly in Reynolds’ Curtis, in moments when his effortless charisma and unflappable confidence don’t quite hide the needling glimmers of self-frustration or loneliness. Curtis, by contrast, seems to be a man of few attachments or emotional baggage, a dynamic, free-spirited risk taker whose current hot streak seems to shake something loose in Gerry, especially when his own performance seems to improve in Curtis’ company.

In this manner it is similar to Robert Altman’s gambling opus California Split, and I suspect that one shot utilizing a slow zoom is in direct homage to him. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the film features Jason Segel as acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, the Rolling Stone journalist sent to profile the author—who had then exploded into public consciousness with his 1,079-page literary bestseller Infinite Jest—on the final leg of Wallace’s 1996 book tour.

Weigert and Woodard have just one absolutely terrific scene apiece, but they nail a complete history of affection turned to dwindling forbearance for Gerry’s failings. Louis, where Curtis takes the opportunity to reconnect with an on-and-off-again g.f., Simone (Sienna Miller), who dresses the men up for their visit to a riverboat casino, and whose shy friend Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) forms a fleeting but precious emotional connection with Gerry. The movie’s chief pleasure is watching Mendelsohn in a wonderful role that’s both shifty and sincere, taking maximum advantage of the Australian actor’s hangdog appeal and sauntering physicality.

From there it’s on to Memphis, where Gerry’s luck takes an unexpected (by him) turn for the worst, followed by an unplanned detour to Little Rock, where an ill-advised reunion with his ex-wife (Robin Weigert, piercing in a one-scene role) tells us everything we need to know about the long trail of failure and heartache that’s led him to this point. Reynolds has his detractors, and surely some won’t buy him here, but Mendelsohn proves conclusively that he’s one of the best film actors we’ve got right now. Breezing into town on the back of a picture-book rainbow, Curtis obviously enjoys spreading his lucky-charm largesse, even if he makes intermittent moves to offload Gerry as a bad risk. Eschewing the flashier, over-exposed gambling capitals like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, they capture a lingering sense of abandoned Americana in shots of boarded-up storefronts and old casino facades — all filmed in beautifully muted grays by d.p.

A guy who, in the course of a single conversation, would be apt to footnote his thoughts and qualify the act of conducting an interview with meta-narrative gusto, all while spouting beautifully worded profundities almost as an afterthought. “There were a lot of interviews [with Wallace] that I got to watch and listen to,” Segel explained after the movie’s Friday premiere. “And I read and I read and I read. I started a book club in the little town that I live in outside of LA with three really great book dorks who have read Infinite Jest five or six times. Yet for all the impressive authenticity of the various settings, it’s Gerry and Curtis’ continually evolving push-pull dynamic that deservedly takes centerstage here, in a picture driven far less by narrative incident than by its gently pulsing comic undercurrents and vivid contemplation of character. If it were to fizzle out, as many worthy titles from this festival sometimes do, it would be a crime, but somewhat fitting due to the subject matter.

Fleck and Boden have long demonstrated a fond fascination with strugglers, strivers, misfits and perennial outsiders, whether it was Ryan Gosling’s strung-out high-school teacher in “Half Nelson,” Algenis Perez Soto’s determined Dominican baseball star in “Sugar,” or even the psych-ward buddies played by Keir Gilchrist and Zach Galifianakis in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” To varying degrees, both Gerry and Curtis are slaves to the self-destructive, can’t-lose mentality that fueled any number of gambling pictures (particularly Robert Altman’s “California Split,” a clear conceptual influence here). And encapsulated in those days was friendship, competition, so many conflicting things about the nature of art, the publicizing of art, and how do people reconcile that?” We see Gerry sink to new lows throughout, but he’s never more wildly alive than when he suddenly announces, in defiance of every prudent impulse, that he’s going all in. The film casts a spell moment to moment, although its pacing demands considerable patience and its cumulative effect doesn’t deliver in conventional terms. The addiction has exacted a subtler toll on Curtis, who’s obviously more put-together and has far superior judgment, but it’s nonetheless visible in the rootless existence that he occasionally yearns to throw aside.

True to the storytelling principles that have shaped their movies, Boden and Fleck are interested mainly in observing the ways in which Curtis and Gerry pull together and draw apart, deceiving one another out of self-interest and then opening up out of a desire to connect to a kindred spirit. That steadily pulsing emotional core is built into the beautifully harmonized turns by Mendelsohn, stamping out every trace of showiness in complete service to one of his richest roles to date, and Reynolds, tempering his silver-tongued charisma with quiet notes of melancholy. The filmmakers’ reluctance to over-explain character motivations has mostly kept their films out of the mainstream and will continue to do so here, but there’s no shortage of impressions that resonate. The polished movie’s limberness to a large degree comes from its invigorating use of flavorful blues and honkytonk tunes, including vocal, guitar and piano pieces. A Sycamore Pictures presentation of an Electric City Entertainment production in association with Gowanus Projections. (International sales: William Morris Endeavor, Los Angeles.) Produced by Tom Rice, Ben Nearn, Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell.

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Andrij Parekh; music, Scott Bomar; music supervisor, Jim Black; production designer, Jade Healy; art director, James A. Gelarden; set decorator, Selina van den Brink; costume designer, Abby O’Sullivan; sound (Dolby), Dick Hansen; supervising sound editor, Tom Efinger; sound designer, Abigail Savage; special effects, Nami FX, David Khalil Nami; visual effects supervisor, Mark Friedman; visual effects executive producers, Chris Haler, Luke Di Tommaso, Andrew Bly, Charlotta Forssman; stunt coordinator, Felipe Savahge; assistant director, Mariela Comitini; second unit camera, Chris Teague; casting, Cindy Tolan.

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