The uneven addiction drama 039Mississippi Grind039

26 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mississippi Grind': Sundance Review.

PARK CITY, Utah – Three movies, each with something to prove, or at least a question to answer, had back-to-back premieres on Saturday night at Sundance. “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.A sort of bromance road-movie version of James Toback’s “The Gambler,” Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Mississippi Grind” arrives at an awkward moment: the remake of “The Gambler,” with Mark Wahlberg, just came out last month. “Mississippi Grind,” which features a wink of a cameo by Toback, isn’t quite as compelling as “The Gambler,” but for an addiction drama it’s awfully watchable.PLOT: Two down-on-their-luck gamblers (Ryan Reynolds & Ben Mendelsohn) hit the road, embarking on a tour of all the seediest casinos and private games the American South has to offer in an effort to change their luck and build a bankroll. Could “Mistress America,” the latest from Noah Baumbach, a beloved director whose films don’t tend to sell many tickets, be a breakout at the indie box office?

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. Ben Mendelsohn stars as Gerry, an Iowa loser who is sitting at a casino poker table when the game is joined by a charismatic wanderer, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) who breaks every rule of poker etiquette but lifts everyone’s spirits with his joking and wins over Gerry by buying him a top-shelf Woodford, for which bourbon the movie serves as an extended advertisement.

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. I mean, since when has the gambling movie been so popular that in the last two months we’ve gotten the premiere of not one, not two, but three full-on gambling dramas? 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. What’s Curtis’s secret? “I don’t care if I win,” he says. “I just like playing.” Gerry, it turns out, is no ordinary loser; he’s in deep with loan sharks and begs to come along on Curtis’s next adventure, a trip to a high-stakes game in New Orleans, with a stop along the way to consort with cute hookers (Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton). 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.

MISSISSIPPI GRIND follows hot on the heels of the recent remake of THE GAMBLER and the Jason Statham vehicle WILD CARD (a remake of the 1986 Burt Reynolds movie HEAT). 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. 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. Happily the third time really is the charm as MISSISSIPPI GRIND, while not perfect, has both GAMBLER and WILD CARD beat in that – as an indie – it doesn’t have to compromise the inherently seedy premise but tacking on a goofy ending (THE GAMBLER) or action scenes (WILD CARD). To me he seemed like an average guy who deserves a chance to get back to zero, but dozens of people streamed out of the Eccles screening yesterday and I can certainly see why viewers would tire of this self-destructive character, who at one point tries to rob someone close to him. 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. Rather, it’s a full-on mood piece as Reynolds and Mendelsohn’s characters slink across the south, realistically going from one extreme to another in their fortunes.

But his recent run, essentially going back to “Green Lantern” in 2011, has been unlucky. “Mississippi Grind,” from the team behind the indie darling “Half Nelson,” finds Mr. 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.

Still, Mendelsohn shows flashes of goodness, and when Gerry sits down to play at the piano you see the soul in his eyes and you hope he at least makes it out of this alive. 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).

In the third act, what looks fairly predictable goes a bit bonkers, with all sorts of new and seemingly uncharacteristic elements being thrown into the mix. I found it mostly compelling, at times even exciting, with the alternately jokey and desperate Gerry just barely keeping alive some hope for redemption.

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. MISSISSIPPI GRIND also happens to be the best thing Ryan Reynolds has done in years (but not for a lack of trying) and playing a motor-mouthed gambler who’s like Van Wilder with an addiction, Reynolds plays to all of his strengths. Reynolds in their quickie reviews. “It’s hard to remember this ridiculously handsome actor’s talents being put to more effective use,” David Rooney wrote in The Hollywood Reporter. 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.

Yet I thought Curtis, the good-luck man whose invocation of rainbows invariably leads to big wins for his new friend, was the more interesting character. He has the look of a high-roller, and the swagger of a mental case, but the film often pulls back the curtains during quieter scenes, such as a really well-done sequence where he visits his on-again/off-again fling (a call girl played by Sienna Miller) and another when he visits his blues singer mom in a dive bar. He’s very much the secondary figure in the script, but the easygoing and funny Reynolds shows again why he’s one of our most appealing leading men. 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. Ben Mendelsohn, who routinely pops up in key roles to steal movies like THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and KILLING THEM SOFTLY finally gets to play the lead in an American movie, and he gives the film the same edge that he gives his European star-parts, such as the crazy-underrated STARRED-UP. Rooney added, a comment echoed in other reviews. “Mistress America,” a comedy starring and co-written by Greta Gerwig, was acquired for distribution by Fox Searchlight before Sundance even began, signaling solid commercial prospects, at least by independent film standards. 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. While he’s the older man to Reynolds’ younger stud, the roles actually seem reversed, with him benefiting from the young man’s confidence, even if he proves to be maniacally unpredictable in his gambling habits. While I’d stop short of calling MISSISSIPPI GRIND excellent, the fact is it’s quite good and should be the kind of film that winds up being appreciated by a wide audience. 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. It’s stylish, seedy without being unseemly, and very evocative of a certain kind of lifestyle, with the beautifully assembled blues soundtrack and dialogue that’s witty without being too stylized – a factor which has killed many a gambling film.

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. At the very least, it should allow audiences to see a different side of Mendelsohn, and fully appreciate how effective Reynolds can be in the right role. But Variety’s Scott Foundas reasoned, “Positioned properly, it could reach Baumbach’s broadest audience since 2005’s ‘The Squid and the Whale,’” which took in about $9 million after adjusting for inflation.

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.

Headland as an update of “When Harry Met Sally,” the very much R-rated “Sleeping With Other People” stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie in a story about love blooming between two flawed friends. Still, Geoff Berkshire, reviewing the film for Variety, wondered if the it might fall through the box office cracks. “Too broad for the arthouse and too small for the multiplex, leaving it in an uncomfortable commercial grey area,” he wrote.

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 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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