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‘Jerry & Marge Go Large’ more free ticket than jackpot, still plenty of fun

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There’s a certain kind of movie that we don’t see very often anymore. The small-scale film with an unflashy but talented cast, telling a simple story. Maybe a comedy with some dramatic elements, maybe a drama with a good sense of humor. Nary a superhero to be seen nor an explosion to be heard.

Those films, once a staple of the cineplex, are now largely the domain of streaming services. Their ongoing and unslakable thirst for content means that they have, almost by accident, become the last bastion of this sort of movie.

“Jerry & Marge Go Large” is a perfect illustration of this shift. You’ve got a couple of older stars in Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening – capable, consummate pros who are very good at what they do – in the lead. Based on true events involving a man who figured out a loophole to game the lottery, it’s a movie that offers a story that revolves around people who are neither young nor wearing spandex. A movie for grown-ups, as my friend Rich Kimball likes to say.

But movies for grown-ups don’t sell. Not anymore.

Twenty years ago, this movie opens in theaters and does perfectly serviceable box office. Now, it’s an exclusive offering from a lower-tier streaming service like Paramount+. No judgment – I’m glad that there are folks out there willing to devote resources to this kind of movie – but it’s undeniably different.

The film itself is pleasant enough, albeit a little slight. It’s a story of ordinary folks stumbling into something extraordinary, yet never changing who they are. A tale of older people looking for meaning in a world that has in many ways left behind, and finding it – but not where they thought it would be. You won’t be surprised by much, but that’s part of the joy. In many ways, this is a favorite blanket of a movie: warm and a little worn, frayed but comforting nevertheless.

Jerry Selbee (Bryan Cranston) lives in the small town of Evart, Michigan with his wife Marge (Annette Bening). After over 40 years as a production manager at the nearby cereal factory, Jerry is steered into retirement when his line is shut down. They’ve got grown children – Ben (Jake McDorman) and Dawn (Anna Camp) – and a circle of friends, but not much excitement. Jerry struggles without his job to give him purpose.

But something changes when Jerry stumbles upon a life-changing discovery: a loophole in the lottery.

Specifically, a situation where – due to the particulars of the game – someone who purchased enough tickets could shift the odds to their favor. In essence, if you spend enough money, you can’t help but profit. Through volume, you can guarantee a win – and it’s all legal.

Jerry, for the first time in his life, leaps without looking. He starts playing the game. And he wins. He confesses to Marge, who embraces the idea. The game is discontinued in Michigan, leaving them to travel to Massachusetts to continue their plan. The convenience store they choose is run by Bill (Rainn Wilson), a grubbily charming slacker who proves to be an ideal accomplice to their ticket buying project.

Before long, Jerry and Marge have brought in their friends. Everybody makes money – their kids, their friends Howard (Michael McKean) and Shirley (Ann Harada), their accountant Steve (Larry Wilmore) – and they all use their good fortune to breathe life into the town. Meanwhile, Jerry and Marge’s relationship is reenergized.

But Jerry’s not the only one to have found the loophole.

A Harvard student named Tyler (Uly Schlesinger) has also worked out the lottery math. And he’s got his own agenda. Which means that he and his consortium wind up on a collision course with Jerry and Marge. How will they respond to the challenge before them?

It all plays out about how you’d expect.

“Jerry & Marge Go Large” is a charming movie, but a slight one as well. There’s not a lot in the way of conflict, really; there’s an antagonist of sorts, but the truth is that the film is too amiable for any of that. It’s a story built around the idea of sticking it to the man, but in a legal and respectful manner, which isn’t really sticking it to the man at all.

The film is based on a 2018 article by Jason Fagone in the Huffington Post; it’s one of those nonfiction pieces that practically demands to be given the movie treatment. Brad Copeland adapted the story into a screenplay; David Frankel ran the show behind the camera. It’s a decent script – straightforward and no-nonsense – and Frankel’s direction is perfectly cromulent. Nothing flashy, nothing overly exciting – just basic filmmaking.

The talents of the cast elevate this movie beyond its limitations. Cranston is one of our best, emanating Everyman vibes with every breath in this one. He makes Jerry just the right flavor of odd – weird, but still likable. Meanwhile, Bening is lovely as Marge, a woman desperate for adventure who has one dropped in her lap. Her joy and excitement are what fuel this movie. And their chemistry together is lovely, a portrait of a marriage between people of a certain age and all that that entails.

The supporting cast is stacked, though none of them are given as much room to run as you might like. Wilson is funny, but he’s pushing a bit harder than you like. McKean never gets much to do and Wilmore feels just a bit off. Schlesinger is a believable jerk, with an ‘80s teen movie villain flavor to him, but he’s also oddly flat. The sense from the ensemble is of a well-cast group that never quite gelled the way that they should have. They’re OK.

“Jerry & Marge Go Large” is the kind of mid-level movie that used to be the backbone of Hollywood, a solid comedy headlined by stars and featuring a memorable, recognizable cast. It doesn’t always work – things go a bit off the rails by the end – but those moments are relatively few and far between.

Not great, but pretty good – you have to like your odds.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 20 June 2022 15:43

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