Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Yvonne Landry, Anthony Howard, Ryan Reynolds, Jayson Warner Smith, Alfre Woodard
Written and Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (It's Kind of a Funny Story, Sugar)
Mississippi Grind (opening today) is the sort of gritty, character-driven film made for long-time character-actor, Ben Mendelsohn. He's been a leading man in Australia for several years, known mostly to American audiences as a guy you know you've seen before in several movies but probably couldn't name. Mississippi Grind exists in grimy, smoky, dimly-lit bars and poker rooms and it tells the story of one man's addiction, a topic too-often tackled in movies. But here, it's made interesting by Mendelsohn and his on-screen partner, Ryan Reynolds, who sheds his comic-book hero persona and who gives a career-best performance.
Mendelsohn plays Gerry, who meets Curtis (Reynolds) at - where else? - a poker table. Gerry is making small talk but mostly minding himself when the boisterous Curtis pulls up a seat and decides to buy Gerry a bourbon...and not just any old bourbon, a Woodford. Curtis strikes us as so clueless ("Aces are good, right?"), that we just assume he is some sort of card shark looking for his next victim. Well he finds a victim in Gerry, who is more harmful to himself than anyone around him, not that Curtis has anything but good intentions for his new-found pal.
Hearing that Curtis is on his way to New Orleans, Gerry talks him into bumming a ride so that they can go down to a major poker tournament being held there. The plan is to gamble their way South. The film becomes a road trip movie where we learn more and more about just who these two guys are, what motivates them and why they need each other.
But more than just a buddy-road-trip, Mississippi Grind is a hard look at gambling addiction. Gerry is in deep with a lot of people, and is an expert con man when he wants to be. He listens only to poker self-help CDs in his car, and we can see that switch turn in his eyes whenever the thrill of the bet is upon him. He has given his life to the game, a game that he has very little control over.
The joy of the movie - if you can call it that - comes from Mendelsohn and Reynold's performances, and watching them play off of one another. The story as such is not overwhelmingly strong, and for as much travelling as the pair does, things move surprisingly slow.
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