Jerry and Marge Go Large presents its larger-than-life tale with restraint and sincerity, imbuing its caper framework with the tenderness of a Christmas comedy.
If you’ve never heard of the small town of Evart, Michigan, David Frankel’s new dramedy Jerry and Marge Go Large not only spotlights it for you, but endeavors to make sure its name, reputation, and appeal will remain in viewers’ memories. Inspired by a ripped-from-the-headlines true story and based on a Huffington Post article (penned by Jason Fagon), the film chronicles the real-life character of Jerry Selbee (Bryan Cranston), a retired Kellogg’s factory line manager with a skilled mathematical mind who, not long after his retirement, discovers a loophole in the Massachusetts’ state lottery system. Without ever breaking the law in any kind of Bonnie and Clyde way, Jerry teams up with his loyal, lovely wife Marge (Annette Bening) and sets out on an odd adventure (driving between Michigan and Massachusetts) rather than enjoying his peaceful golden years. The goal: to both decipher the lottery and disrupt his mundane retirement life with a newfound sense of purpose, which eventually leads him, Marge, and the friends-and-family shell corporation they created to pocket $27 million in over nine years. The only major conflict that arises for the amiable old-timers comes courtesy of a complacent, spoiled Harvard senior, Tyler (Uly Schlesinger), and his cohort of gambling friends who interrupt their winning streak by also hacking into the lottery’s flawed pattern, leading a Boston Globe reporter to begin tracking the fishy activities. But this hiccup isn’t where the Frankel casts his film’s primary focus, instead crafting the narrative more as a study of the generational clash of worldviews and manners as well as a story about how ordinary citizens can challenge big business.
Despite being a tale of pensioner crime, Jerry and Marge never heads down the rough and winding road of something like Clint Eastwood’s The Mule, instead taking on more of a fairytale shape (especially emphasized via the film’s bookending voiceovers), recalling the wholesomeness of something like It’s a Wonderful Life, with the titular do-gooders trying their best to revive and reconstruct their beloved community, especially the canceled jazz fest. Indeed, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to consider Jerry and Marge Go Large as a kind of springtime “Christmas movie,” it’s simple tale of humanism and family-friendly atmosphere the core that such films are built upon, executed here without ever giving into heightened dramatics or sacrificing the sweet, easygoing rapport its characters share. Supporting this gentle approach is the way that Frankel captures Evart’s surprising, unembellished beauty: the film frequently even scans as a love letter to the small town, constructed as it is around various community staples (local diners, the town’s bookstore, etc.) and casual get-togethers and weekend backyard BBQs. But, of course, the duo of Cranston and Bening are the (co-)main attraction here, and it’s thanks to their effortless but precise work that the sexagenarian lovebirds Jerry and Marge feel so fleshed out as characters, capitalizing on the many tender and human moments they’re given.
For all that, though, there’s no denying that Jerry and Marge Go Large is held back by an overly straightforward and thin storyline, a prefab aesthetic, and a shower of clichés and twee moments that can sap its particular charm. But despite the familiar directorial and screenwriting decisions, Frankel mostly keeps things afloat, even if sometimes too safely, in keeping a smooth pace and allowing plenty of space for his down-to-earth characters to register with viewers in an inoffensively feel-good manner. Jerry and Marge Go Large may not be working in accord with the taste and priorities of cinema’s current metaverse era, but for a frustrated and fed-up world living on the tail-end of social distancing and lockdown protocols, its cozy comforts offer their own form of escapism. Truly, the midwestern milieu Evart seems to exist in an entirely different time and space, its aura one of easy, uncomplicated nostalgia. It’s an agreeable Sunday film that, forgoes any roller-coaster thrills or theatrical emotionality in favor of capturing the gentleness of humanity’s mutual affections and interactions. Jerry and Marge Go Large isn’t much for challenging viewers, but for the inclined, it’s quite successful at working its way into the heart’s soft spots with a warm touch and appealing sincerity.