Mississippi Grind (2015) tells the story of Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a down-on-his-luck gambler who owes money to “everyone.” That is until hope comes in the form of Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a happy-go-lucky Poker player Gerry sees as his newfound good luck charm. Together, the two betting buffs hit all the major casinos along the infamous Mississippi river in the hope of winning back Gerry’s debt.
Take that, Gyllenhaal. To pull off a buddy, road trip and gambling film successfully, the studio and Writer/Director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck bet heavily on the charisma of seasoned actors in Mendelsohn and Reynolds. A role intended for Jake Gyllenhaal, who would have surely delivered a more complex take on Curtis, Reynolds’ natural comedic wit feels astonishingly effortless at times – most notably so when playing off of Mendelsohn’s suppressed energy, recalling the same helpless desperation from ‘Bloodline’ with a more lighthearted approach. This chemistry is also echoed in their respective roles; Gerry’s casino chronicles tell of big gambles with even bigger payoffs, while Curtis cracks tall tales about a player he knew who once checked a Tiger onto an Amex.
Fool me once. If it isn’t evident early on, with his looming debt and reluctance to call it quits, Gerry has a gambling addiction, yet the film strangely decides to neglect it. Although Boden and Fleck spin a humorous twist on the issue at times – such as a lingering shot of the men’s washroom entrance after Gerry and Curtis bet if the next guy to exit is wearing glasses – they fail to directly confront it through Gerry. More frustratingly, during a climatic moment ripe for Gerry to realize his existing fortune, the film chooses to blatantly ignore both thematic and character development in addition to a compelling narrative that expects us to be satisfied with these two guys all of a sudden hitting a hot streak one random night and choosing to ride it – disregarding the risks of the very gamble that set them on this southern road trip in the first place.
Are aces good? Given more attention to the actual game of gambling would have intensified those types of scenes and, although hinging plot progression on chance remains eye-rolling, would have also had conveyed the actual skill of something like Poker. Instead of taking the time to show the river and the development of the players’ faces a la ‘Casino Royale,’ ‘Mississippi Grind’ rushes through its games and fails to create much of any suspense whatsoever.
Bad luck charm. This is also true in Gerry and Curtis’ relationship, which can essentially be boiled down to an addicted gambler and a lucky enabler. Very rarely do they come to blows or are confronted by an astute outsider – either Sienna Miller as Curtis’ estranged escort friend or Yvonne Landry as Gerry’s ex-wife, both actresses supplying strong feminine additions to the onscreen bromance. Yet, it’s baffling to watch a buddy movie where the relationship is a textbook example of an addict’s life. At the end of the day, the film clearly puts gambling in a negative light – it just so happens that light is dimmed by an excess of lightheartedness, negligence towards its characters, and inability for us to relate to the thrill of Gerry’s addiction.
Road stumble. So how does ‘Mississippi Grind’ fare from a road trip prospective? Not much better. Music Supervisor Scott Bomar does do a commendable job of adapting the acoustic and brass score to reflect the wailing Chicago blues to the Pianos of St. Louis all the way down to the prideful Jazz of New Orleans. Visually, however, it’s as if the film needs to constantly remind us that Gerry and Curtis are trekking down this iconic symbol of Americana, as each new locale is presented in the same stationary formulaic manner, almost slideshowesque. Just because you showed what could be a stock video of the Gateway Arch doesn’t mean we have to believe this random casino is in St. Louis. It’s lazy, uninspired, and the obvious result of scraping the bottom of the tourism-funding barrel.
Part gambling, part buddy, part road trip film fails on all fronts despite fun performances from Mendelsohn and Reynolds.