From the moment Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) sits down at the table across from Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), we’re waiting for a con that never comes. He’s got a glib, friendly patter, and they’re sitting at a poker table; obviously he’s a con man. Except that he’s not trying to grift money or valuables — at least not directly. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say Curtis is a pick-up artist of sorts. And though his relationship with Ben isn’t sexual, it does feel faintly romantic, placing Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s fourth collaboration, Mississippi Grind, somewhere in the outskirts of queer cinema.
Lots of buddy road pictures have two guys bonding, but there’s something more complicated going on here. And yes, I’m as surprised as anyone else to say that about a movie starring Ryan Reynolds, and doubly so to say he’s a better choice than Jake Gyllenhaal, whom he replaced. Curtis is the same sort of slick, amiable, Van Wilder sort Reynolds almost always plays, but modulated into a minor key that makes him suddenly a lot more textured and interesting. He isn’t a problem gambler, the way Gerry is, but he latches onto them compulsively.
We get a hint of this from Simone (Sienna Miller), who Curtis catches up with in St. Louis. She sees his patterns with the clarity of a friend who knows when she can’t save someone from himself, and how to keep from getting herself dragged down with him. She knows all about them, down to the way Curtis bought Gerry a Woodford Reserve the night they met, just like he did with a “George” she mentions, and who knows how many others before that. And she sees it all ending in heartbreak, as it always does.
Gerry, on the other hand, is a classic character: a sad-sack who keeps making one bad choice after another. Or, rather, keeps making the same bad choice again and again. He’s already lost his wife (Robin Weigert) and daughter over his gambling habits. His bookie (Alfre Woodard) is about to send a big guy after him to collect. And still he thinks he can bet his way out of the hole he bet his way into. Mendelsohn always does marvelous character work with supporting roles like Gerry, and it’s a delight to see him get all the screen time of a lead to show off his craft.
Gerry meets Curtis in Dubuque, but he’s not much different from the worn, Midwestern faces we see grinding out their fortunes in backroom poker games all down the Mississippi. Even their eventual goal, in New Orleans, sounds a lot more glamorous than it really is. The city’s name conjures up images of Vegas-style decadence amid the gentility of the Gulf coast, but the reality is just more run-down bars and shotgun shacks, like the ones they’ve seen all along. The racetracks and casinos look the same no matter where Curtis and Gerry land, and changing their surroundings doesn’t change who they are.
These two men are, in different ways, desperately lonely and unhappy. They cling hopefully to the promise of the next sign that will point the way out. And, when no one else will have them, they cling to each other — lovers bound more by need than nurture, more by abjection than affection — dreaming together about the end of their own, personal rainbow.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.