People have been talking about Ben Mendelsohn’s performance in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Mississippi Grind” since its Sundance premiere, and with good reason: he’s brilliant in it. But as good as he is, you can’t separate his performance from that of his costar Ryan Reynolds, whose charming, affable Curtis offers Mendelsohn’s schlubby, sad-sack Gerry a lifeline, as he does the film. Without Curtis, we would bail on Gerry about as fast as you can say, “weak link,” despite his sweet nature. Both are gamblers, Gerry of the unstoppable variety. He’ll do almost anything to get money to use on a poker game or at the casino, including steal from his ex-wife, always with the hope that he’ll hit it big and can pay back everyone he owes, which is just about everyone he knows.
And then one night big, good-looking Curtis walks into a poker game like an offshore breeze, and Gerry sees it as a good omen. When Curtis says he’s heading to New Orleans, somewhat mysteriously, Gerry suggests they combine forces and gamble their way down the Mississippi to NOLA, where Curtis knows a guy who runs a big game (James Toback in cameo). And so begins their road trip in, amusingly, Gerry’s Subaru Legacy. There are stops along the way to visit the women more or less in their lives – Gerry’s ex (Robin Weigert), a prostitute Curtis may or may not love (Sienna Miller) and her friend Vanessa (a delightful Analeigh Tipton). There are tightly drawn gambling successes, and colossal near-misses, leaving the two men much where they began. And when Gerry’s bad luck seems to descend like a plague, Curtis opts out, saying, “It had to end this way, Gerry.”
And so it seems will “Mississippi Grind.” But there are surprises to come – another woman in Curtis’s life, another chance for redemption for Gerry. Win or lose, we will not easily forget his humanity. For Mendelsohn imbues Gerry with such pain, such sweet cat-loving Subaru-driving weirdo madness, we’re on his side even when he is, admittedly, not a good person. It’s not an easy role to pull off. If it was played by Ben Stiller, for instance, we would just loathe him. Paul Giamatti? With that voice? Slap! But Mendelsohn is like a bad dog, his sad, devious eyes winning reprieve after reprieve. And we feed off of Curtis’s understated and understanding response — he knows Gerry is capable of winning, sometime, somewhere. Mendelsohn is genius but Reynolds is key.
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It’s odd to mention writer-directors Boden and Fleck (“Sugar”) almost as an afterthought, but with “Mississippi Grind” it feels as if they have built a fairly sturdy if unspectacular boat and steered it down the river without hitting any major obstacles or running aground. It’s not likely to win them many plaudits, other than from SAG members, but if there’s an award for casting good actors, providing them a moving platform and then getting out of their way, they deserve it.
A24 premieres the film September 25.