starring Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton
written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
by Walter Chaw Completely adequate from start to finish, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Mississippi Grind is essentially California Split without the stylistic innovation or sense of sadness and danger. In it, down-on-his luck gambling addict and self-proclaimed "not a good guy" Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) runs into bon vivant gambling addict Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who Cheap Thrills Gerry into a series of escalating gambles before whisking him away on a journey to the Big Game. There's a tremendous scene right in the middle with a loan shark played by the great Alfre Woodard that showcases both her immense warmth and her sudden steel. There's also a whore with a heart of gold (Sienna Miller) and a winsome epilogue that suggests, The Wrestler-like, that this big, lovable, broken-down lug just can't get out of his own way, gosh darn it--isn't that a shame? It is. It's a terrible shame.
Mostly it's a shame because Mendelsohn is so good, as usual. His turns in Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly by themselves should have been enough to elevate him into the first rank--and maybe they did if Mississippi Grind's easy-to-digest Fat City is the first rank. I can't tell anymore. I suspect, however, that Mississippi Grind will end up on the heap of other completely-adequate independent films that showcase some fine work in the pursuit of nothing in particular. Did this movie win a jury prize or something at Sundance? Because it's exactly the sort of pap that Sundance likes. Gerry, to prove that he's a loser, reunites briefly with his ex-wife (Robin Weigert), only to exit in shame after shattering the glass in a frame holding a photo of his estranged daughter...and his ex-wife's trust in him. Forever. It's spectacularly on the nose. That Mendelsohn and Weigert play it so well is testament to their ability to spin silk purses from sows' ears. Imagine what they could have done with ambiguity and earned pathos.
Reynolds's absolute inability to ever be sincere works for his grifter character some of the time (The Grifters is another one that does this better, speaking of which), but his practiced insincerity wears thin. He's perfectly cast as Deadpool. Deadpool looks horrible. Wesley Snipes's greatest trick was making Reynolds a sympathetic figure in the whole Blade 3 fiasco. Here, his late-in-the-game declaration of love for his hooker girlfriend feels like another facile come-on. I don't think it's meant to. He's the most miscast romantic interest since Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III. It's hard to imagine anyone would hire him to walk their dog, much less agree to spend their life with him. He and Mendelsohn act as though they're in different films, which is a problem because they're not. I did like the look and texture of Mississippi Grind quite a lot; Fleck & Boden have demonstrated a good sense of place throughout their career, along with what seems an honest interest in the downtrodden and the marginal. Their decidedly middlebrow ambitions, though, once those places are established, so successfully normalize the fringe that their films become rote, boring. I've never hated one of their movies. They don't elicit that kind of emotion.
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