Jerry & Marge Go Large was reviewed out of the Tribeca Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. It debuts on Paramount+ on June 17, 2022.
Based on the true story of Jerry and Marge Selbee — the retirees who gamed the Michigan Lottery system in the early-mid 2000s — Jerry & Marge Go Large is the kind of decent, inoffensive film that’s hard to dislike, even if it leaves you with little to love. A hodgepodge of various saccharine themes, it coasts largely on the caliber of its lead performers, Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening, who transform its gaudy sentimentality into something intimate. The result won’t knock your socks off, but it will outfit you with a fuzzy new pair, warm enough that you can ignore the occasional itch during its mere 96 minutes.
Jerry (Cranston) may not know people, but he knows numbers. Having reached the end of his tenure at the local Kellogg’s factory, he bristles at the idea of retirement; during family dinners with his brother and adult children, the mere thought of sitting idle makes him impatient. His wife, Marge (Bening), senses something is amiss, but she knows it’s an adjustment. Anytime Jerry tries to make a small investment, his accountant, Steve (Larry Wilmore), reminds him of the long and boring process of doubling his money over seven and a half years. The answer, it would seem, lies in the Michigan Lottery system and its new Winfall game, where winnings trickle down to tickets containing two to four of the six jackpot numbers. Per Jerry’s calculations, if you purchase enough tickets, you’re practically guaranteed a return.
He hides his little gamble from Marge at first (though he would be sure to remind you that it isn’t a gamble at all!), but Jerry is a simple, small-town Midwesterner, and lying isn’t his forte. Soon, Marge gets involved in his scheme (a legal one, mind you) and the couple finally begins saving enough for retirement. Before long, their focus shifts from themselves to helping their struggling hometown of Evart, and the lottery becomes a community endeavor — but there’s a problem. Jerry and Marge aren’t the only ones who’ve figured out the loophole, and a snotty Harvard student, Tyler (Uly Schlesinger), is about to make things personal.
Director David Frankel has a light touch, though it’s never impersonal, given the way he lets Cranston and Bening’s dynamic dictate each scene. In a wholesome mirror to Cranston’s ruthless role on Breaking Bad, the lottery scheme gives Jerry a renewed sense of purpose, just when it felt like control was slipping from his grasp; at one point, he hides his initial winnings from Marge as if he were a secret agent. This renewed vigor carries over to the couple’s romance too; it’s an adventurous new lease on life that grants them new energy, and the confidence of a pair of beaten-down losers who care so little about being “cool” that they become almost admirable.
Outsmarting a system on its own terms is one thing, but Jerry & Marge Go Large introduces its own moral dimension to this concept, by imbuing the couple’s version of the scheme with a litany of wholesome qualities. Not only is it a capitalism backdoor that gives them the chance to pour money into their flailing township, but it grants them a sense of purpose, in defiance of their worth being dictated by a corporate age of retirement. In contrast, Tyler, the couple’s competition, has the demeanor of short-tempered middle management in his dealings with his college investment club, whom he treats as unpaid lackeys. The film may not have an overarching, evil villain — even the lottery commission is a neutral observer — but it frames its minor Ivy League antagonist as “the man” while positioning its small-town protagonists as rebels who ought to kick him in the teeth.
Despite the resemblance of this premise to right-wing reactionary fearmongering, Jerry & Marge maintains a sense of kindness and compassion, kept afloat by the prowess of its incredible lead performers. It may have the occasional flourish — in particular, a Rain Man-esque affinity for portraying numbers as overlapping on-screen flurries — but its aesthetic plainness feels nearly in-step with Jerry and Marge themselves, whose unassuming costume design and polite, inconspicuous demeanor often forces closer observation from the audience. Cranston and Bening portray a sense of suppressed excitement, unwilling to attract curious onlookers, but eager to exude a sense of childlike mischief for the first time in decades.
The film may not be able to reconcile its dual approach to their scheme — it’s both personal and altruistic, but never in a way that forces these two modes into conflict — yet it harbors enough radiant goodness thanks to its personable leads, that even its plateauing, half-formed tale of money (and living well in a moneyed world) can’t dull Cranston and Bening’s shine.