'Mississippi Grind' review: The best gambling flick since 'The Sting'
The dramatic comedy "Mississippi Grind" (opening in select cities Oct. 16) is unlike most entries in the gambling genre. The gamblers aren't overtly cool - they sport rumpled clothes instead of the finest suits. They don't bounce from one lavish casino to another equally luxurious casino - they wander pool halls and unglamorous local gambling halls. Yet, this tale of two gamblers wandering the card tables that dot the Mississippi River is one of the best films about gambling in decades.
In short: A pair of newly acquainted poker players -- down-on-his luck Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and free-wheeling Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) -- take a gambling road trip through the South to win back what they had lost in their lives. (Watch the trailer)
This character-driven drama is simple - it's driven by Curtis' acumen of winning and Gerry's desperate need to win. The dynamic between these two very different characters -- set against a richly textured backdrop of the South -- makes "Grind" unique from most gambling movies. They are not smarter or better than their competition at the table -- but they are skilled with enough knowledge to make smart bets ... but not smart enough to prevent them from making some stupid wagers too.
Mendelsohn and Reynolds are perfectly cast as the desperate gambling addict in debt to everyone and the young, rootless gambler without a care in the world. Left unchecked, either main character could have tilted "Grind" toward the bleak or the glib -- but together, Mendelsohn and Reynolds execute a truly balanced dramatic-comedy. Reynolds gets the thankless duty of keeping the movie from descending into grim drama, while Mendelsohn masterfully creates a character who is simultaneously endearing and frustrating. Mendelsohn makes it just too damn hard to root against such a lovable loser (even when he's clearly making a terrible bet).
The script smartly allows the two characters to drive the story -- which pays off given Curtis' dire gambling debts and his very active and overpowering gambling addiction. He always has a plan to win big next time -- even when he's just lost big. Curtis is the x-factor that makes "Grind" interesting. Theoretically, this should be a simple story of two guys traveling to a high-stakes card game -- but Curtis's character flaws consistently keep the story moving forward in an unpredictable direction. He's a volatile gambler who is liable to lose the duo's entire purse at any moment. "Grind" is much more an addiction drama than it is about the fun and slick world of gambling.
"Grind" works due to its whip-smart banter, entertaining character dynamic, constant dramatic tension and an ever-present and real chance these two guys would lose everything at any moment. It is entertaining and roguishly charming without compromising its dramatic addiction core.
Final verdict: Crisp dialogue, strong performances, confident storytelling and a vibrant setting make "Mississippi Grind" the best gambling movie since "The Sting."
"Mississippi Grind" is rated R for language. This indie gambling drama opens in select cities Oct. 16.