Some men are just born to lose. And some men deserve second chances. But the beautiful losers of “Mississippi Grind” abuse the limits of luck landing in their favor beyond reparation in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden‘s uneven fourth feature. These American indie filmmakers got their start at Sundance with their arresting debut drama “Half Nelson” with Ryan Gosling. Subsequent efforts have been only semi-successful. The baseball drama “Sugar” is more politely admired than actively loved, and the comedy “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” was their first real misfire. The talented storytellers meld all of their gifts for this humanist gambling drama and two-hander, but as a rambling, should-be plucky riff on ‘70s-style shaggy losers on the road (see “Fat City,” “California Split”), “Mississippi Grind” can never quite deal itself a winning hand.
Starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, “Mississippi Grind” begins with one drunken fateful evening. Three-time loser Gerry (Mendelsohn) is out on the town chipping away at poker games. But when a charming drifter named Curtis (Reynolds) appears on the scene like a buoyant breeze, Gerry’s luck begins to change. Their night of good fortune continues coincidentally in a local divebar and sparks begin to fly when the two men click. Gerry’s had a cloud hanging over him for years—we quickly learn he’s in deep, dire debt with gambling bookies— and Curtis is a ray of sunlight that changes the mood of his depressive skies. “You’re my leprechaun!” Gerry roars, foreshadowing the hope and perceived need he’s going to cling to. An endearing bon vivant, Curtis’ endgame motivations are opaque, but the incorrigible Gerry becomes enamored with his incessant tall tales and poker-legend myths.
As Curtis readies to ghost out of town, his wanderlust is perhaps less carefree than it seems, and Gerry is threatened by his bookie (uncharacteristically played by Alfre Woodward) for late payments. The down-and-out man convinces his lucky charm to go on a run to Mississippi to play in one of the epic high rollers game that Curtis keeps waxing nostalgically about. Hitting casinos and local action along the way, the two men place all of their fate in this long shot of a plan.
Along their journey, the two men bond, shed their facades, and communicate deep desire for a connection on the lonely road. But while the pot at the end of their rainbow — a metaphor that’s overdone in the movie — is high stakes, their story is much more small scale, perhaps too much, to the film’s detriment. ‘Grind’ features buddy comedy, road hoppin’ elements that have a superficially enjoyable sheen, but ultimately the movie’s more interested in gazing somberly at the idea of the American male and his lost, self-destructive qualities.
Reynolds’ fast-talking, motormouth charisma routine can only captivate for so long, and when he turns solemn, he just can’t convince the same way as his buddy. Mendelsohn is terrific and real as the failure who can never catch a break, but his character’s misery and hard luck is so downtrodden he becomes hard to bear. Gerry’s the heart of the movie, but it gets increasingly difficult to sympathize with him. When Curtis has finally had enough and wants to abandon him, we completely understand why. Chemistry is everything for this film and while the Reynolds/Mendelsohn alchemy is good, it isn’t quite remarkable either. “Mississippi Grind” is a talky and introspective film about sad, lonely men wandering the country who haven’t figured out how to grow up. But it’s just not as insightful or affective as say, “Five Easy Pieces,” another throwback the film seems eager to emulate.
Co-starring Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton and Robin Weigert, female relationships do figure into the narrative, but these men are generally too self-absorbed and irresponsible to sustain meaningful companionship, even though it’s clearly what they crave (filmmaker James Toback has an amusing cameo, too).
Quiet reflections of human behavior that are meaningful and create a cool distance from the audience are a fine line, and Fleck and Boden walk it constantly. Their meditative considerations of character are occasionally soulful, but some audiences may feel estranged when the movie seems to go around in circles. Already preoccupied with taking the existential temperature of the country, the filmmakers like to gaze at the landscapes of the American Midwest. The movie travels through Ohio, St. Louis, Little Rock and New Orleans, among other places. And while Andrij Parekh brings a poetic beauty to the dilapidation they cross paths with, the staring-off-into-the-distance introspection just doesn’t achieve the gravitas the way the movie hopes to.
Apart from misjudging the limits of our empathy for the hopeless Gerry, Fleck and Boden’s writing isn’t as immaculately crafted as one might imagine either. The hookers-with-a-heart-of-gold narrative for Sienna Miller and her friends is rather familiar, and the movie employs many other mundane, down-on-their-luck clichés of gambling dramas. When the movie tries to get weird and unconventional, it either hits discursive cul-de-sacs, or just keeps rolling forward.
Ironically, Fleck and Boden’s biggest problem is not knowing when to fold. “Mississippi Grind” features about four endings devoted to the themes of chance, kismet, and coincidence, each dragging on and further sapping the movie of its vitality. The movie’s relatively “happy” ending, if we can call it that, also feels a little antithetical to a story about men who live to lose. A more honest approach — something the filmmakers seem keen to explore through most of the film — might not have been as crowd pleasing, but perhaps would have been much more true to their characters (especially Gerry, who never shows any signs of smartening up or overcoming his addiction). Fleck and Boden certainly have strong filmmaking smarts. They understand restraint, have terrific observational eyes, and know how to coax honest performances out of actors. So it’s perhaps a shame that “Mississippi Grind” is ultimately too underwhelming to stake with any confidence. [C+]