Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in advance of its bow on Paramount+, Jerry & Marge Go Large is inspired by the true story of a pair of retirees who exploit, entirely legally, a mathematical loophole in the state lottery to win millions of dollars for themselves, their friends, and their neighbors. In telling this tale, director David Frankel delivers a crowd-pleasing light comedy which briefly flirts with notions of more substantive allegorical engagement before settling for, and into, an easygoing domestic groove, connecting most roundly by way of winning performances from Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening.
The pair star as Jerry and Marge Selbee, empty-nest high school sweethearts who’ve raised their son Ben (Jake McDorman) and daughter Dawn (Anna Camp) in Evart, Michigan, a single-stoplight town with a population of less than 2,000. When Jerry gets nudged into retirement, he finds himself restless, his penchant for mental engagement tested.
One day he spots a brochure for the Winfall lottery, reads the fine print, and notices a loophole. When the jackpot hits a certain amount without a big six-digit winner, it triggers a “roll-down,” with accrued money that is then divided amongst lower-tier prize winners. This changes the odds and tilts them in favor of players—just a bit, but more dramatically for those who have bought tickets in appropriate volume.
Jerry tests his theory, refines it, and then lets his wife in on the secret. He expects her to preach restraint, but Marge embraces with enthusiasm the notion of gambling their savings. They quickly double their modest checking account balance, and soon establish an incorporated investment firm to pool the money of fellow Evart citizens, selling shares at $500 apiece.
After the Winfall game closes in their state, Jerry and Marge commit themselves to regular marathon road trips to Massachusetts, where they spend up to 12 hours per day printing out tickets. It’s finally then when someone else cracks this code—a group of Harvard students, led by Tyler (Uly Schlesinger, lacking the developed tool kit to flesh out his character beyond an avatar of smarmy privilege and entitlement). This presents Jerry and Marge not merely with competition, but an active threat.
Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) is a capable director with plenty of experience in helping to locate and pull to the fore hidden reservoirs of genuine feeling in sometimes thin nonfiction source material. Jerry & Marge Go Large, though, yields to framing which seems a bit reductive, even if it is largely in its helmer’s wheelhouse.
The film takes its form from an article by investigative journalist Jason Fagone, whose work has often assayed the colorful contours of other curiosities of Americana (competitive eating, a contest to create a 100 miles-per-gallon vehicle). As hammered into screenplay shape by Brad Copeland (Arrested Development, Wild Hogs), however, the material here leans a bit too heartily into the formulaic antagonism of educated but nasty young elites versus “life smart” decent folks.
This focus come at the expense of the stories of the friends Jerry and Marge are helping, and the town they’re revitalizing. While there are some personal indulgences, most of the windfall from the Evart winnings gets cycled back into downtown—a reopened ice cream shop, a rebuilt public rotunda that could accommodate a reconstituted JazzFest which, fingers crossed, might be suitable enough to one day entice Steely Dan for an appearance.
To the movie’s credit, these modest dreams aren’t played for empty jokes. But neither does Jerry & Marge Go Large quite give them full and equal spotlight. Instead, time is increasingly ceded to the Harvard group’s attempts to muscle out the Evart group, as well as a Boston Globe reporter, Miya Jordan (Tracie Thoms), investigating not only the players’ strange patterns but the revelation that bureaucrats are okay with the loophole since it funnels additional profits to the state.
With a bit of narrative massage, it’s easy to envision a different version of Jerry & Marge Go Large which might capture the interest of Alexander Payne or a likeminded filmmaker—a slightly more ambitious movie which uses the exploits of its eponymous characters, and their establishment of a sort of Everyman hedge fund, to offer a broader commentary about what we choose to value and center in modern-day America. This isn’t quite that film. That certainly isn’t the grandest sin. It simply means Jerry & Marge Go Large lands as a diverting amusement—an underdog tale more in the vein of Queenpins rather than something which lingers longer, and stands out as a portrait of its time.
That said, harping too much on shortcomings of omission rather than commission runs the risk of shortchanging the movie’s considerable pleasures. Assisted by a lively score from Jake Monaco that appropriately threads the needle between sentimentality and playfulness, Frankel delivers a well-crafted, energetically paced movie that is consistently appealing.
Years on from the conclusion of Breaking Bad, it may seem silly to spend a lot of time praising Cranston, who has the ability to believably convey goofiness, menace, and everything in between. His talent by now just seems self-evident. But it’s worth pointing out that he’s the definition of an actor who understands the assignment, a performer who uses both his innate intelligence and work ethic to bring additional meaning and poignance to scenes. Here he once again locates a physical vocabulary which communicates the depth and complexity of Jerry’s inner feelings—including the regret and sadness which can still exist within the framework of something many would recognize as middle-class success.
Late in the movie, there is one short monologue, beautifully delivered by Cranston, which further unpacks Jerry’s sense of low-key dislocation—even from his family. In it, he talks about the moment he grasped that his natural knack with numbers was not a gift, but rather a trick. “Your brain tells you you’re seeing what others don’t see, but in the end you’re just seeing less,” he says to his wife.
It’s a nicely crafted, illuminating moment of self-realization, heartbreaking and sweet at the same time. Most of Jerry & Marge Go Large’s shading, however, lies in simple and straightforward character interplay. And it’s here that all of Cranston and Bening’s small, smart choices (an averted gaze here, a deflective line reading there, his body posture, her widening of eyes) deliver a multiplied audience engagement. These veteran performers make these two characters likable and, more importantly, fully knowable, and through them Jerry & Marge Go Large fully breathes.
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