“Mississippi Grind,” the newest film from directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”), follows two pathetic gambling addicts on an odyssey across the South in search of enough money to break even. Ben Mendelsohn (“The Dark Night Rises”) expertly plays Jerry, a sad real estate agent with a knack for losing money. He is easily drawn in by the fast-talking charms of Curtis (Ryan Reynolds, “Green Lantern”), a younger version of Jerry who appears, at least at first, to win wherever Jerry loses, in poker and in life. The two become a pair soon after Curtis slides into Jerry’s poker game, asking, “Did you see that rainbow yesterday?”
We actually did see that rainbow. The film opens with a rainbow stretching over a pastoral scene, romantically completed with a red tractor and silo. This is the first and last tribute to the nature of the Midwest; scenic shots of the plains are quickly replaced with rainy streets and flashing lights (a different kind of romanticized America). But this initial rainbow remains important, “a sign,” as the two men tramp across the country, betting on anything with a name alluding to the color spectrum. Even at his low point, Jerry seeks out a slot machine called “Rainbow Road” in a New Orleans casino. They carry a “Wizard of Oz” type mindset that something better is waiting for them somewhere over the rainbow.
As Jerry’s Subaru traverses the Southeast, the audience’s hope that they will make it to “somewhere” dwindles, as does the faith that “somewhere” exists. According to Curtis, their big break lies in New Orleans at a poker table with a $25,000 buy-in. This game is the catalyst to their trans-American journey. The film doesn’t take long to turn into a road trip movie, full of Americana spirit emphasized by the bluegrass and folk music of its soundtrack. As Jerry and Curtis roll into Nashville, the crooning voice of Big Bill Boonzy assures the audience that “this train is bound for glory.” And we are forced to ask — is it?
Glory, it seems, is less important than just playing the game. “The journey is a destination,” Curtis claims with a wink. Maybe that’s why the two men return to the table and win big, only to turn around and lose it all — a cycle that quickly becomes tiresome. The repetitive plot might have been necessary, but strong performances from the two leads leave it redundant. Jerry could easily have been merely pathetic, but Mendelsohn layers him with enough anger and sincerity to raise him to the level of a compelling deadbeat. And Reynolds, who is easily written off as a summer blockbuster actor, shines as Curtis. Reynolds’s inherent charm couples with mystery to create a character the audience can’t exactly pin down.
“Mississippi Grind” isn’t quite plot driven and it isn’t quite character driven. The film leans on its dialogue, which often fails to offer sufficient support. At times the film feels like a remake of some glamorous ’70s casino movie, relying on the audience having seen the original to fill in the gaps. “Mississippi Grind” longs for a time (or a place over the rainbow) where two pitiful gambling addicts can be heroes, a time that no longer exists and probably never did.