How times can change. Only a decade or so ago, a mid-budget character drama like Jerry and Marge Go Large, which recently premiered on Paramount+, would’ve gotten a modest, but wide release in a theater near you. Much like the other movies directed by David Frankel — including The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, and Hope Springs — it would’ve found a mature audience looking to avoid the drudge and sludge of increasingly dour big-budget studio affairs, even if it didn’t stay in theaters for long or have an extended residence in popular culture’s collective memory.
Inspired by Jason Fagone’s 2018 article with the same fun, eye-catching title, Jerry and Marge Go Large harkens back to the more elegant and decent days when movies were more commonly centered around grounded, grown-up, and sincere adults who were looking out for their own interests while also appealing to the common people. It’s not flashy or noteworthy in terms of craft or storytelling. But as you’re watching it play out amicably, if not electrifyingly, you can’t help but be charmed in seeing and knowing that quaint character-based dramedies such as these can still find a place in the general common market. Even if they have to premiere on a fledgling streaming service in order to be distributed. Or to even exist.
The film stars Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening as our titular Jerry and Marge Selbee, amicable small-town grandparents who have entered their “golden years,” as many people are keen to tell them, after Jerry is forced into retirement. Paramount+’s latest original title allows viewers to take comfort in the warm appeal of seeing Cranston and Bening do their thing as Jerry, an ace mathematician, discovers a loophole in the Massachusetts lottery that results in the couple winning thousands upon millions of dollars. By purchasing a substantial amount of tickets, he constantly wins more than he starts with. The more money they put into the game, the more and more money they win back.
Thus, Jerry and Marge find their late-in-the-game ticket to winning a lot of money, and rather than keep their secret to themselves, they use their money-making plan to help rebuild and revitalize their small town of Evart. After all, it’s not illegal to buy a lottery ticket, even in bulk. But they will soon find trouble in the form of Tyler (Uly Schlesinger), a Harvard student who wants to reep the benefits of this lottery loophole all for himself and force Jerry and Marge out in the process.
While the story does have some cheeky allusions to Cranston’s career-defining work as Walter White in AMC’s Breaking Bad, this Paramount title owes more to his defining role as Hal in Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle. Though not nearly as dim-witted as that suburban patriach, Cranston imposes a great deal of humble-minded decency and charming goofiness into this lead performance. It’s the story of a man who is trying to prove himself to himself after years of following company orders and keeping his head inside his work papers. But the film is also also about a twilight-period man who is trying to use his gifts to help others and see what is most important to his legacy, especially as society is trying to usher him into his final resting years.
The ultra-versatile, multi-award-winning actor’s characteristic gravitas is not used to strike fear or stress the ridiculousness of his semi-impulsive actions. Rather, it’s used to focus inward at a pencil-pushing man who is realizing a bit later than others that what should matter most of all is the people who help you find your calling or give you the motivation to embark on an improbable scheme that will make you richer — both literally and spiritually — in the process.
It’s all what you expect it to be. There are no great surprises, here, and in terms of execution, it’s all sadly a bit middling, too. The production values are relatively low, the plotting favors a sort of traditionalism that leaves little room for suspense or intrigue past the initial inciting incident, and Frankel’s direction remains frustratingly impassive, lacking any real zest, enthusiasm, or cinematic flair in this math-driven story. But through Cranston and Bening’s wholesome chemistry, along with the winning efforts of supporting players like Larry Wilmore, Rainn Wilson, and Michael McKean, it’s hard to complain. You don’t really need any fancy film tricks when you have surefire performers like our two leads at the forefront, admittedly, and it’s their work in particular that keeps this movie humming throughout its less-inspired sequences.
By the time the movie’s genuine conflict kicks into gear, which features tired finger-wagging at a younger generation that doesn’t understand the ethics of their elders, Jerry and Marge Go Large moves away from the humble pie comfort that made its first two-thirds so disarmingly appealing. The film is at its most endearing and most engaging when it’s able to bask in the casual charm of small-pond characters discovering their small fortunes, without even needing to resort to criminal activities. They’re gaming the system, but it’s all relatively low-stakes.
Thus, Jerry and Marge Go Large is maybe the most enjoyable 5/10 film that I have seen in recent memory. By the time this review is submitted, it won’t keep a long residency in my min\d and I’ll move on to other, more challenging, or hopefully more dynamic movies to come. But at the very least, it’s nice to know that folks like Jerry and Marge still have a place in the movies. Even if they’re efforts to go large can’t secure the big screen anymore.
Jerry & Marge Go Large is now available to stream on Paramount+. Watch the trailer here.