Gambling’s allure as drama isn’t hard to dissect. It’s a lifestyle few of us would have the nerve to attempt, a world of smoky, dimly-lit casinos, back-rooms and bars — crippling hours, crumbling priorities and all manner of bad habits and bad choices driven by an addiction.
“Mississippi Grind” drew Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Alfre Woodard and Ben “Killing Them Softly/Bloodline” Mendelsohn with its seedy, sordid blend of fatalism, violence and melodrama. It’s a rambling, random, shambolic affair with little logic other than the geography of going from here to there — “here” being Dubuque, Iowa, where the gamblers Jerry and Curtis meet, and “there” being New Orleans, where the “big buy-in game” awaits.
And if it seems, in the end, pretty much pointless, that’s sort of the point. Few gambling tales have captured the masochistic self-destruction, the manic mood swings build on the flip of a card, a spin of the wheel or a dog or horse making the turn at the track as well.
Jerry’s (Mendelsohn) let his addiction take over his life. Surely Curtis (Reynolds) sees that. Curtis plops down at a table at one of those sad prairie-state casinos, starts chattering and sizes up the players. “I’m from all over,” he explains, in between stories and jokes.
Jerry, he’s decided, is a nice guy. And Jerry? He’ll take that offer to buy him a drink.
“Curtis. Like Tony?”
“No, Curtis, like Mayfield.”
Gamblers are on the lookout for signs, little messages from the universe. Curtis keeps talking about this atmospheric spectacle he caught earlier that day.
“Best. Rainbow. Ever.”
They notice a dog racing the next day with a rainbow connection. The University of Hawaii (Rainbow Warriors) are playing Gonzaga the next night. These are “signs.”
And they’re off, Curtis itchy to stay on the move, says “It’s Machu Pichu time.” That’s code for leaving a person, place or game. Jerry? He’s smitten by this stranger who takes an interest in him, even though Curtis won’t say (right away) what we all see.
“Some guys are born to lose.”
As they motor southward, layers peel away from this mismatched pair. Jerry skips out on his job and flees a bookie (Alfre Woodard, surprisingly), Curtis has a stop to make, with his hooker ladyfriend (Sienna Miller, earthy and inviting and needy).
The guys base their trip on fate, making decisions based on whether the “next guy outta the bathroom” is wearing glasses or not.
Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck built a career in features out of a pretty good documentary about Dominicans trying to make it in the North American minor leagues (“Sugar”). But like their debut feature (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”), they show a better grasp of milieu and character better than they do of story.
“Mississippi Grind”‘s couple makes little sense as a couple. Is Curtis using Jerry, betting against this “born loser,” or is Jerry to help Curtis on his own path to self-destruction?
The ending feels like a cop-out, the coda doubles down on that shortcoming.
But Mendelsohn, playing another version of the guy you want to sit farthest from at the bar, and Miller and especially the charming, smarmy Reynolds, make this a game we’ll sit through, even if we’re never all in.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 1:48