Mississippi Grind (A24, R)

film Mississippi-grind_smThere’s a good time to be had in trying to figure out where the movie’s going and how it’s going to end—reading its tells, if you prefer.

 

 

 

film Mississippi-grind

In the second road trip movie on southbound I-55 this summer (after The End of the Tour, which was also released by A24 after a Sundance premiere), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind is a pleasant enough, though ultimately just-okay, gambler picture starring Ben Mendolsohn and Ryan Reynolds. Boden and Fleck made their names on 2006’s Half Nelson, for which Ryan Gosling received his only Oscar nomination (so far). Since then, they’ve been trafficking in solid efforts that are ultimately unmemorable: 2008’s Sugar, 2010’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Mississippi Grind is in keeping with this pattern.

Mendolsohn plays Gerry, a Tim Blake Nelson–looking schlub who, in typical gambling-movie fashion, owes money all over town and is perennially down on his luck, like Gil from The Simpsons. Gerry thinks his luck is changing when he meets Curtis (Reynolds), a hotshot gambler who is memorable for not giving a shit whether he wins or not. Gerry has a good night on Curtis’s coattails the night they meet, and somehow form a fast (and not entirely believable) friendship. They team up for the road trip portion of the movie in an effort to get to a big poker event in New Orleans, with their starting point being in Iowa. Yes, this does mean that they stop in St. Louis along the way (not to mention Memphis and Little Rock), with the St. Louis sequence likely being the best part of the film. (True, I’m biased, but I think I’d think that whether I was a St. Louisan or not.)

Really, to expand the “St. Louis is the best part” argument, the first half of the movie is more fun than the second half, with St. Louis being pretty close to the last good scene before you start losing interest. Toward the beginning, there’s a good time to be had in trying to figure out where the movie’s going and how it’s going to end—reading its tells, if you prefer—but by the time you get to the end of the journey, you hardly care anymore. At least James Toback, writer of the original 1974 James Caan vehicle The Gambler (a film remade last year with Mark Wahlberg), pops up in a cameo toward the end.

That is another thing the film gets right, though: the way it fills its smaller roles. Even to call them “supporting roles” feels like a stretch, because no one gets very much screen time apart from Mendolsohn and Reynolds. At one point, Curtis hooks up with an old flame, Simone (Sienna Miller, American Sniper), whose friend Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy Stupid Love) seems like she might turn out to be the December to Gerry’s May. This is part of the seemingly inevitable subplot, where the movie manifests Gerry’s newfound luck by having him sleep with someone a fraction of his age. But, at least it doesn’t go there.

And that’s about the best way to describe the movie. It avoids a lot of potholes you’re worried it’s going to hit, but just not doing negative things isn’t enough overall to make the film in total a positive. As it is, it’s just about average. | Pete Timmermann

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