“The journey’s the destination, sweetheart,” says Curtis, the slick gambler in Mississippi Grind, played by Ryan Reynolds with the air of a man who almost believes his winning streak is unbreakable. 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. 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.
While their film is played less for comedy, Boden and Fleck borrow their central character dynamic from Altman’s 1974 classic. They pair a slick, savvy pro with a down-on-his-luck poker player who tags along in his new friend’s seemingly magical wake, from racetracks to floating card games to casinos. 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 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. 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.
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. It’s hard to remember this ridiculously handsome actor’s talents being put to more effective use.
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Opposite him, Ben Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a haggard-looking schlub with an estranged ex-wife (Robin Weigert) and daughter behind him and a whole mountain of gambling debts creeping up on him — as a local loan shark (Alfre Woodard) reminds him with icy-cool seriousness. 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. 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.
Since Gerry’s day job as a third-rate real estate broker is never going to get him out of the hole, he hitches his wagon to Curtis after they meet during a card game and bond over bourbon. 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.
Curtis claims that he doesn’t care about winning and just likes to play, never succumbing to Gerry’s fatal flaw of not knowing when to quit. But despite the socially skilled, in-control exterior he presents, Curtis is just as stuck on the seesaw of chance. A more wistful side of him emerges in lovely interludes with Simone (Sienna Miller), a sexy St. Louis bar hostess and his sometime girlfriend; and his smoky-voiced mother (Marshall Chapman), a been-around-the-block singer. No less tender are the scenes of shy flirtation between Gerry and Simone’s guileless colleague Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton).
The film casts a spell moment to moment, although its pacing demands considerable patience and its cumulative effect doesn’t deliver in conventional terms. Gerry’s quest to clear his debts, start fresh and do something nice for his daughter never really becomes a driving force, and nor does the arrival in New Orleans provide a tangible payoff. (However, buffs will enjoy a thuggish appearance there by James Toback, whose history with the genre includes his semi-autobiographical script for the original 1974 The Gambler.) It ends instead, perhaps inevitably, on a note of ambiguity, in which each man may change direction or more likely continue down the same path.
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. 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. And the performances of both Reynolds and Mendelsohn are fortified with deep feeling, working in admirable tandem.
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. That music seems part of the fabric of the cities through which Curtis and Gerry pass, where cinematographer Andrij Parekh evocatively captures the dingy barrooms and pool halls, the racetracks, seedy hotels, faded storefronts, and even the ritzier establishments, much of it having the appearance of places frozen in time. Those settings make an apt backdrop for two guys caught in a loop of hope, elation and crushing disappointment.
Production companies: Sycamore Pictures, Electric City Entertainment, in association with Gowanus Projections
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Robin Weigert, Alfre Woodard, James Toback
Director-screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producers: Tom Rice, Ben Nearn, Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell
Executive producers: John Lesher, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Jade Healy
Costume designer: Abby O’Sullivan
Music: Scott Bomar
Editor: Anna Boden
Casting: Tracy Kilpatrick, Cindy Tolan
No rating, 108 minutes.