Monday, October 5, 2015

Beautiful losers

There's a certain energy that inspires and accompanies spur-of-the-moment road trips that is usually some combination of excitement, desperation, and a nonchalant attitude toward responsibility and life, in general. My friend, Jeff, and I used to engage in a lot of them when we were running the comic studio in the 90s. One was a day-long jaunt down to Columbus, OH for a sizable show. We had two artists with us and, at one point south of Detroit, one leaned forward from the back seat and asked: "So, you know where you're going?" We both glanced back and said: "No." Silence followed for a few beats before: "What do you mean 'no'?" We both shrugged and said: "No.", as if the inquiry made as much sense to us as our implacability made to them. There was some amount of caterwauling about the terrors of being lost in direst, rural Ohio or, even worse, Columbus before we convinced both of them that this was less of a gamble and/or impending disaster than they thought. Sure enough, a few minutes past the city limits led us to a black-and-white sign alongside the highway that read simply "Convention center - next exit." (Jokes about the lack of imagination of Ohio residents go here...) Sometimes, venturing out into the unknown isn't as risky as it sounds.

In that respect, one could see the purpose of the road trip that makes up Mississippi Grind as kind of a meta definition of the act itself. Road trips are often an excursion into chance; a roll of the dice and done for the thrill of it. Road trips to gamble one's way into a card tournament are taking it to the next level. We took our trip into the nether reaches of Ohio with a sense of hope: we wanted to promote our stuff with an idea toward more fans, more buyers, and wider distribution. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) arc a bit closer to the desperation aspect, in that they're not sure that making the effort toward New Orleans will be their ticket to the life change they're both looking for, but it seems like a much better idea than staying in Iowa and dreaming about it.

Quick synopsis: Gerry is a gambler who's in over his head, but still haunts the riverboats on the Mississippi, trying to get back on top. Curtis also plays cards on the boats, but for very different reasons, since he's in it more for the social aspect. In hitting it off, Curtis tells Gerry that he knows a guy who has a big poker tournament in New Orleans and they decide to grind their way down the river in hopes of winning the big prize.

Grind is a number of different styles of movies in one. It's a buddy film in the truest sense, as the two leads depend on each other for motivation and concrete elements of plot. It's a statement film about what life is like as a grinder amidst the riverboat casinos, so far from the glitz that is Vegas and so redolent with the gloom of post-modern struggle that is the American Midwest. But I think it's also a personal examination film, wherein many viewers will be able to find some element of themselves in both of the leads: Gerry for his yearning to be something; to hit it big in a way that lifts him past the life that otherwise seems empty. And Curtis for his yearning for something that he can't quite identify; an answer to the American dream that is so utterly absent from the horizons of so many. As he says, he doesn't gamble to win. He gambles because he likes people and he especially likes people like Gerry, who definitely has a goal (Get rich!) of some kind in mind, even if his lack of restraint prevents him from getting there. That next big score is always right around the corner for Gerry, but Curtis doesn't even have a "next big score" in mind, because he doesn't know what he'd do with it if it arrived. Gerry wants to pay off his debts, provide for his ex-family, and do something more meaningful with his life. Curtis wants to go to Machu Piccu, because that's something you might say if someone asked: "What do you want to do?" For Curtis, hitching himself to Gerry's fervent drive is a way to move forward, since he lacks that propulsion in his own life.

I could see myself in both roles at one time or another. I was Gerry when I helped Jeff run the studio, always thinking that our big break was around the next corner, after the next show, so close that I could feel it and we'd be on our way, competing with the big guys. Until then, I was grinding, showing up at Jeff's place in the middle of ice storms because "Tuesdays are when we work!" and chastising myself for taking time out to see a movie (ahem...) when I could be working on a script. On the other hand, I'm still playing Curtis, because even now I'm looking to share the enthusiasms of others without quite knowing if mine are the ones that could be turned into anything viable or if I even want them to be. Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (writing and directing) came up with the idea for Grind while working on a previous film and stepping into a riverboat casino on an off night and immediately being taken with the atmosphere. They knew that there was a story there and they just needed to figure out how to frame it, kind of like Curtis looking for his story. Overall, I think they succeeded.

On the technical merits, I think they did well in that the story is constantly believable and the characters are humans who react as humans would. They spend a lot of time in extreme closeups in the first part of the film but then shift out of that later. One could assume that their intent was to get the audience focused in on reading the faces of the two leads (the way you might at a poker table) but to gradually expand the view as they moved down the river and involved more people in the story, but I can't say for sure. Unlike many other films (Rounders, Casino Royale, etc.), the cardplay was believable, although this wasn't solely a poker movie, since we shift through most of the major gambling pastimes, from blackjack to craps to the ponies. [Spoilers below!]

My one complaint is that their story went too long. In the end, they get as close as possible to a happy ending with almost definitive resolution. Gerry doesn't have everything he wants and Curtis still lacks a definable path, but they've taken a huge step toward both of those goals because their grinding turns into a moment of success, as opposed to the results that so many end up with. You can argue that that's why their story is interesting, because it's exceptional. But their story is interesting, regardless of success, because Reynolds and Mendelsohn sell you on who they are. When they leave that, post-success, they instantly become less interesting and that just-around-the-corner tension dissipates. There's a great moment earlier in the film where they reunite in New Orleans after having left on poor terms and Curtis, having given away all but his last $100, finds Gerry at a blackjack table trying to play his way back into a bankroll rather than sit destitute 1000 miles from home. Curtis loses his hundred on a single hand and sighs... until Gerry flips him another $100 chip and they both smile. Right there is the defining moment. This is who these two people are. This is what makes them 'Curtis' and 'Gerry' and it's fine to leave them on that moment of uncertainty because that's what gambling is: uncertainty. The audience doesn't need to know that Gerry finally solved many of his problems or that Curtis finally has the opportunity to find his purpose. The purpose of those characters and of this film is to show them grinding toward that discovery. Fading to black on that scene leaves the audience to decide on its own answers which, as I've said before, is the best kind of storytelling.

All of that said, it's still a worthwhile film that I hope gets more exposure. When we saw the second showing at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, there was all of one other person in the room, so I'm hoping it hits it big elsewhere or will continue to have a chance to do so.

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