The uneven addiction drama ‘Mississippi Grind’

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mississippi Grind': Sundance Review.

“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. 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.

Though the 38-year-old has had his share of boldface-ensuring box-office hits (The Proposal, Safe House) and cred-accruing indies (Adventureland, Buried), he’s spent the last few years trying — and failing — to be everything from a superhero (The Green Lantern) to a sci-fi action star (R.I.P.D.) to a bromedian (The Change-Up). 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. But with yesterday’s Sundance premiere of Mississippi Grind — an affecting, ambling gambling drama that features the best performance of Reynolds’ career — it’s clear that all Reynolds needed was a director who could dig past the actor’s natural, sometimes overpowering charisma, and divine the longing underneath.

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. 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.

In Grind, Reynolds plays Curtis, a good-luck charm and drifter who materializes one day at an Iowa casino, where he meets Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a gambling addict who’s in debt, and slipping into an assuredly depressed middle-age. 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. 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. 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).

It’s one part Sideways, one part Robert Altman’s California Split, and like fellow Sundance entry The End of the Tour, its power comes from the way it details the awkwardness of grown-up friendship. 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. As played by Reynolds and Mendelsohn — the Australian actor who’s been government-certified Great in Everything since 2010’s Animal Kingdom — Gerry and Curtis are perfect foils for each other: Gerry, despite his troubles, is an eternal optimist trying to right his wrongs and find stability in his life; Curtis is a user, a guy who latches on to cities and people for months at at time, then quickly discards them.

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. On screen, Reynolds has always alternated between piston-oiled charm and distant-eyed aloofness; in Grind, he combines them so smoothly that you can never quite guess Gerry’s next move or motivation, giving the two men’s relationship (and the movie) an unexpected tension. 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’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.

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.

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.

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. 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 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. Wrapping matters on a tactfully open-ended note, Fleck and Boden leave it to their characters and the audience to determine that answer for themselves. 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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