“Jerry & Marge Go Large” is a charmer. It’s a low-key, fact-based caper movie that overcomes some broad comedy leanings to settle into the sweet stuff in the soft center.
It’s bolstered by a funny script and dependably sharp performances by Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening.
Jerry (Cranston) and Marge Selbee (Bening) live quietly in one of those Michigan factory towns so small, everybody knows each other. It’s an appealing vibe, à la a Midwestern “Doc Hollywood.”
Jerry is closing out a respected but unremarkable career to join Marge in retirement. They have friends, their family loves them. But Jerry is restless. He’s no good at this retirement thing, and Marge feels it: “I’ve waited 40 years for it to be just us,” she says, “and we kind of suck at it.”
He has a mathematical gift that has rarely gained expression beyond making his work as efficient as it could be. His idea of a fun activity when his son was younger was searching through rolls of coins to find rare ones (his calculations of the odds were right; they made some money, but the boy was bored).
Now, there’s little for his active mind to do — until he peruses an odds chart for a local lottery game and discovers a flaw that can be exploited for reliable winnings.
JOY OF MATH
What follows is the joy of math (seriously — an exchange about “ binomial distribution “ will get some smiles), the joy of newfound purpose and, yes, the joy of a bit of sex. More on that later.
This is all based on the true story of the Selbees (as reported in a Huffington Post article by Jason Fagone), who racked up eight figures in winnings. Perhaps even more remarkable is where that path takes them — in the movie, anyway. It’s an uplifting story, though the filmmakers have taken some liberties to make it more so.
Playing Jerry, Cranston’s retirement ennui is relatable and touching. The 66-year-old vital actor undertakes a subtle physical transformation into the older-seeming, humble Jerry. He’s sympathetic without maudlin touches. You see him coming to life as his scheme takes flight.
It takes about 15 minutes to see why Bening took the role. At first, Marge seems a bit generic; the quietly supportive wife. Then the storied actress’ performance takes off as Marge does, as the thrill of the enterprise gets into her blood. From then on, Bening gets most of the laugh lines, and she knows just what to do with them.
She knows where to gently squeeze to make Jerry spill the beans: “You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on. I’m too old to wait it out.” Later, her pupils practically dilate as she incorporates gambling lingo into her excited endorsement of the scheme.
When a divorced middle-age friend tells her, “I need someone like you ... but younger,” her “That started so well” is dry enough for Oscar Wilde, but with a flat, Midwestern delivery.
She also ignites a memorable initiation-of-sex scene with a determined look somewhere between lust and embarrassment. It’s awesome.
The rest of the cast is well-selected, with Larry Wilmore (“The Nightly Show”) amusing as the couple’s lonely friend and accountant and Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) riding high in a freewheeling role as their eventual partner. The presence of a villainous college kid (Uly Schlesinger) who threatens to bogue their high is appropriately akin to an ingrown hair — though, as written, his comeuppance is pretty corny.
The scheme and how it plays out get the headline. But what buoys the film is the rekindling of Jerry and Marge’s romance and discovery of their spark.
The direction by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) skews broad, especially in the “this part is funny” score deployment and a couple of out-of-place physical gags. But that’s overcome by the central performances and a quite-funny script by Brad Copeland (“Arrested Development”). Though he works in an amusing tangent about potential hitchhiking, he doesn’t let the jokes get in the way of the story. Because, in this case, the story is enough.