The dynamic at a casino poker table is unique. In every other table game, all players are battling the house (and its stacked odds). Poker, by contrast, requires them to play each other, with the casino merely taking a fee—usually a small cut of each pot—for providing space on the floor and a dealer. So it’s perfectly understandable that Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), one of the two main characters in Mississippi Grind, is a bit wary when a stranger named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) sits down at his table and starts chatting up a storm. Curtis is friendly, sure, and he seems to be there primarily to socialize, to have a good time. In this context, however, having a really good time often involves taking money from his new buddies. Trust is an unstable commodity in the gambling world, even for two people who share exactly the same goals. As it turns out, all Gerry and Curtis have in common is recklessness, but it’s possible that that’s enough.
Written and directed by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story), Mississippi Grind superficially resembles Robert Altman’s great California Split, in which Elliott Gould and George Segal play best friends united by their passion for winning—and then immediately losing—vast sums of money. (Even the films’ titles are similar, suggesting that Boden and Fleck intend the homage.) But the relationship between the two men here is more fraught with uncertainty and suspicion, and the milieu resembles that of Scorsese’s The Color Of Money: seedy, small-town establishments. Gerry, perceiving Curtis as a smiling good-luck charm, begs him to come along for a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans, for which the minimum buy-in is a cool $25 grand. Curtis gives Gerry $2,000 as an initial stake, and they hit the road, stopping at various points between Iowa and Louisiana to win the rest of the cash.
Despite Boden and Fleck’s narrative embellishments, Mississippi Grind is still very much a movie about lovable losers, leaning hard on the charisma of its two stars. Mendelsohn plays Gerry as a stringy, sweaty hunk of pure desperation, while Reynolds, as the ostensibly more stable partner, demonstrates yet again that he’s much more than a ridiculously pretty face. Their chemistry together doesn’t recall Gould and Segal so much as it does Keitel and De Niro. (There’s Scorsese again!) So long as the film focuses on that spiky rapport, and on the authentic, lived-in textures of the American Midwest, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, the grittiness and weary pathos ultimately gives way to a disappointingly pat finale, undermining everything that came before. What had been an indie film suddenly goes Hollywood, in the worst way. Boden and Fleck are clearly aware of the problem, and they make a token effort to qualify their implausibly happy ending, but that’s like moving your chips all-in and then feigning disinterest in whether your opponent calls or folds. Nobody’s likely to be fooled.