I played hooky from work this morning (otherwise known as procrastinating writer’s syndrome) to go see the movie Mississippi Grind. I was excited because it had gotten some good buzz and some good reviews, and because good gambling/poker movies come along so rarely. The movie opens with a long static shot of Iowa farmland over which a double rainbow breaks overhead. Something about the framing of shot struck me as distinctly ‘70s in style, and put me in the right mood for what I already knew was going to be a tale about a couple of gamblers dreaming and chasing after the evanescent pot of gold that lies at the end of the rainbow.When we are first introduced to Grind’s protagonist Gerry (Ben Mendolsohn), he is listening to Joe Navarro’s Two Hundred Poker Tells on his Subaru’s CD player. Soon enough we’re in the card room of an Iowa casino, where Jerry, in his slouchy jacket and jeans, looks so much the part of the slightly desperate, down-on-his luck rounder that I almost wanted to give him a hug—except that I could tell he would stink of cigarette smoke. The accompanying banter and affect of the other players at the poker table feels utterly authentic, and when the good-looking and charming Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) joins the game, a fledgling friendship is forged between these two lonely men with gambling habits.
You know pretty early on, with its soundalike title and 70s washed-out color that Mississippi Grind has been conceived as an homage to the Robert Altman classic buddy gambling movie of the 70’s California Split, with Mendolsohn playing the George Segal role and Reynolds doing Elliot Gould (there are also sprinklings of James Toback’s The Gambler thrown in—and Toback, himself, even has a small cameo as the menacing proprietor of an underground poker game in New Orleans).
For a while, in fact a pretty long while, I found myself happy to be along for the ride with Gerry and Curtis as they travel from Iowa to New Orleans on their quest to win a stake for the big poker game Curtis has talked up. Along the way, Gerry wins at first but then loses everything on a river card from hell that will resonate painfully with everyone who has ever played high-stakes no-limit hold’em. But it was in a scene with Curtis’ hooker girlfriend and her roommate, lifted straight out California Split but without the matching wit or style, that I began to feel that Grind was less homage than a case of talented filmmakers who were too fucking lazy to come up with a story of their own.
I mean, it’s nice that the creators of Mississippi Grind, who also made the art-house favorite Half Nelson, are so enamored of the 1970s and California Split and The Gambler (because who isn’t?), but if I’m going to watch Reynold’s Curtis, dressed in a sports jacket, challenge a group of brothers in a rough neighborhood to put their best man up for a one-on-one game of hoop, just as Gould did in California Split, then I’d like to at least see them put a new fucking spin on the ball. It seems as if in this sampling culture, sometimes people think lazy theft is tantamount to a creative act.
Um, well, no.
California Split ends with Segal’s realization that even when you find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it isn’t enough. Mississippi Grind ends up in pretty much the same place. It’s not terrible in the way Mark Wahlberg’s recent remake of The Gambler was. And let’s face it, despite screenwriter’s William Monahan’s writing chops, that movie was a stinker of epic proportions. But at least that movie took a risk on a new thematic angle, even if it lost horribly. Grind plays it like a nit, risking nothing, and gaining less.