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Ben Mendelson, Ryan Reynolds

Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds

“MISSISSIPPI GRIND” My rating: B

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Ben Mendelsohn is such a terrific actor that some day he’ll be cast as an upright citizen.

For now, though, he is Hollywood’s go-to guy for grungy losers (“Animal Kingdom,” HBO’s “Bloodline,” “Killing Them Softly”). In Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Mississippi Grind” Mendelsohn practically sweats desperation and existential angst.

You’d figure that he’d be just right as Gerry, a degenerate gambler from Dubuque, Iowa. What one might not expect is that Ryan Reynolds would match him in the demanding and fuzzy-around-the-edges role of Curtis, Gerry’s alter ego and spiritual inspiration.

Gerry is deep in in debt to…well, just about everyone he knows.  (Alfre Woodward has a brief but tasty scene as a suburban housewife whose real career is that of leg-breaking loan shark.) At a local poker night he meets Curtis (Ryan), an out of towner who tries to disrupt the game with jokes and nonstop patter. Looking at his hand, Curtis innocently asks the other players: “Aces…those are good, right?”

Somehow Gerry gets the notion that Curtis is his good luck charm.

The two men could hardly be different.  Gerry is intense, woebegone, hapless. He goes through hell with every showdown.

Curtis is cool, funny, and entertaining, a raconteur with dozens of shaggy dog stories about the gamblers and lowlifes he’s had the pleasure to know  (including the guy who reversed a losing streak in Kansas City and left the table with “enough to pay back everything he owes and still get a slab at Oklahoma Joe’s”). Curtis doesn’t seem to care if he wins or not. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” he says.

They agree to take a trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, hitting the casinos, horse and dog tracks and back room poker games along the way. Curtis will provide the betting money; Gerry the skill.

What could go wrong?
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