When you're a critic, you have to see a lot of movies you wouldn't normally watch. One of the great pleasures is discovering that a movie is good, even though the premise or subject matter turns you off. This is the case with Mississippi Grind, a good movie which features two things I normally avoid: gambling and Ryan Reynolds.
I'm way too poor and nervous to enjoy gambling. I just don't see the attraction, and my admittedly few trips to casinos have been exercises in boredom and misery. But crappy drinks and crappier music are nothing compared to the misery a raging gambling addiction has inflicted on Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn). He's a divorced 44-year-old who literally can't keep the lights on because every dollar he makes as a (clearly crappy) real estate agent gets plowed back into casinos, backroom poker games, the ponies, or whatever. If you can bet on it, he's there.
Gerry is grinding away at a poker table in darkest Iowa when in walks Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). At first, Curtis appears to be everything Gerry wants to be: a fully professional gambler who drinks Woodford Reserve whiskey because he knows when to walk away from a table. He's good-looking, free, and easy, where Gerry is a total schlubby mess, weighed down by debts to everyone. While Curtis is there, Gerry cleans up in the poker game, and afterwards, the two bond over cheap liquor and darts. Curtis is trying to figure out a way to get to New Orleans to play at a secret, high-rolling poker game with a $25,000 buy-in. After a typically fun night on the town in which he gets stabbed, Gerry decides that the way out of his snowballing problems is to go with Curtis to New Orleans, hitting every dice table and poker shack along the way to raise the money for the climactic poker game that will solve all of their problems.
Gerry is a walking, hamburger-eating gambler's fallacy, and as he drives his sad Subaru through Memphis, Little Rock, and rural Mississippi, he slowly discovers that, despite his classy, popped-collar blazers, Curtis is not much better. For much of its running time, Mississippi Grind vacillates between hope for redemption and despair at the reality of losing hands and elusive sure things.
It's Mendelsohn's sad puppy eyes that keep the film on track. No matter how many times he screws up and self-sabotages, he remains sympathetic. Surprisingly, Reynolds is just as good. Sure, he's still a variation on the cool-bro persona that I and everyone who has ever seen Green Lantern find so grating, but slowly poking holes in his facade may be the masterstroke of directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
Boden and Fleck, who collaborated on the 2006 addiction drama Half Nelson, manage to wring genuine tension out of the poker scenes, the best one of which is set in Memphis. The film has several Memphis connections, including production by Sycamore Pictures and some incidental score work by Scott Bomar. It's a surprising film that wrests unexpected pleasures out of some extremely depressing situations, but it's still not going to convince me to make a return visit to a casino any time soon.