If AARP launched a streaming service and produced its own “Breaking Bad” remake, it might look a lot like “Jerry and Marge Go Large” with Bryan Cranston as a folksy old man who gets some very bad news, then dips his toe into a risky new revenue stream without telling his wife.
That’s where the two projects diverge, and viewers of David Frankel’s latest get to watch a generic piece of fluff that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy without the burden of having to laugh or think. The film seems destined to live on as in-flight entertainment on nursing home-sponsored trips to Vegas, but a good cast and some well-placed sentimentality elevate it into something almost watchable.
Jerry Selbee (Cranston) thought he was the embodiment of the American Dream. A lifelong cereal-plant worker, he started working the night shift in high school and eventually found himself running the place. He and his wife Marge (Annette Bening) raised a couple of kids in the suburbs and they’re both grateful for everything they have. She wishes they could have spent more time together during the decades he spent working long hours, but beyond that they have few complaints.
Then life throws Jerry and Marge a curveball when Kellogg’s eliminates his job, forcing him into a retirement that he never wanted. He doesn’t need the money, per se, he’s just really bored. Jerry thrived at the factory because it gave him a chance to use his seriously impressive math skills. Everyone has a passion, and his just happens to be things like updating the labeling sequences on cereal barcodes. To Jerry, a life without complicated math problems is hardly worth living.
Fortunately, he doesn’t have to wait long for a new equation to present itself. He overhears a cashier explaining a Michigan lottery game called Cash Winfall, in which the prizes for picking even a fraction of the correct lottery numbers go up when the jackpot gets too big. To the average observer, it seems like a marketing gimmick; Jerry, math savant that he is, realizes that it’s something bigger. If you know what you’re doing, there’s a foolproof loophole in the game that can deliver limitless winnings.
The film’s explanation of Jerry’s math is rather rushed, but the gist is every three weeks, the odds of winning get much higher. Buy enough tickets and you basically can’t lose. The plan is so airtight that even Jerry, who is so risk averse that he won’t let his accountant-slash-travel-agent (Larry Wilmore) put his money in the stock market, starts dropping thousands on lottery tickets. And he starts winning.
Jerry is ashamed of playing the lottery, a hobby that he always dismissed as a vice for the imprudent. He doesn’t tell anyone what he’s up to, which only makes his wife feel more isolated. She eventually learns about Jerry’s scheme and rather than be upset, she wants in. She doesn’t even care about making money;she just wants the chance to do something exciting during her “golden years.” She’s ready to start living, and if that means spending eight consecutive hours watching a machine print lottery tickets, so be it.
There’s only one problem: Michigan is about to drop its Cash Winfall game, and the only other state with a similar one is Massachusetts. So Jerry and Marge begin a monthly routine of driving 10 hours to The Baked Bean State, where a liquor store owner (Rainn Wilson) keeps his store open late for them in exchange for a piece of the action.
They keep winning and their ambitions grow. Jerry realizes that more capital can exponentially increase their winnings, and they set their sights on revitalizing their hometown of Evart, Michigan. After collecting investments from most of their friends and neighbors, they start running their lottery operation as a legitimate business, winning millions and spending it on everything from reopening the local ice cream shop to relaunching the summer jazz festival.
But of course, they never had a chance of keeping a secret like this to themselves.
A bunch of mustache-twirling rich kids figure out the same loophole from their Harvard dorm room (which has a “Matrix” poster on the wall, so you know that they’re good with computers). These pathetically one-dimensional villains start their own version of Jerry’s operation, which cuts into everyone’s share of the pie. The greedy kids soon want even more money, and their leader Tyler (Uly Schlesinger) tries to bully and threaten Jerry into getting out of the game.
If you think you know what happens next… you probably do. The film becomes an infomercial for “real America” and how its values can triumph over those damn coastal elites. During a tense diner-set conversation, Jerry’s cup of good old American coffee and Tyler’s Red Bull serve as convenient stand-ins for white and black hats. Nobody was swinging for the fences on this one.
Still, as low as this movie’s aspirations are, its competently executed 96 minutes tend to fly by. It may be painfully unfunny at times and largely conflict-free, but Brad Copeland’s script skillfully enters at the latest possible moment and ends before it can overstay its welcome. Frankel keeps the movie moving along at a bouncy pace, and everything looks so pretty that it’s easy to forget the town was struggling in the first place.
With a couple notable exceptions (the only thing lazier than Wilmore’s performance is the slew of travel agent jokes Copeland wrote for him), the acting is also solid. As strange as it is to see Cranston transitioning into bona fide “old man” roles, he carries the film with a perfect balance of Midwestern sweetness and geriatric confusion. Bening’s light, breezy performance also gets the job done, and the two are relatively convincing as a married couple. The highlight of the film is Wilson, who fully commits to his supporting role as a wacky liquor store owner and spins some straw into comedy gold in the process.
A handful of charming performances and a mercifully tight running time can’t hide what “Jerry & Marge Go Large” really is: content-with-a-capital-C. It’s the kind of movie you throw on after your “Emily in Paris” binge left you mentally drained. It’s the cinematic equivalent of sitting on the lawn at an Eddie Money concert, half buzzed on vodka and lemonade, chatting with friends while you forget that something resembling art is happening in the background.
Much like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” prompted the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, it’s easy to imagine a new rule being implemented that prevents anyone under the age of 70 from watching “Jerry & Marge Go Large.” That’s not an insult; just an acknowledgement that every frame and line of dialogue seems designed to appeal exclusively to retirees. The great irony is, for a film that places so much emphasis on making the most of one’s “golden years,” it asks its viewers to waste 96 minutes of theirs without offering much in return.
“Jerry & Marge Go Large” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a streaming release on Paramount+ on Friday, June 17.