Editor’s Note: The following contains Jerry & Marge Go Large spoilers.Whenever a film proclaims to be based on a true story, it is always an open question about how genuine of a statement that will actually turn out to be. In Jerry & Marge Go Large, the truth is but a light suggestion as it takes a revealing story that had a lot of teeth only to turn it into a feel-good film that strips away all the nuances that made it so fascinating. It stars Bryan Cranston as Jerry and Annette Bening as Marge, both of whom give charming performances that prove to be the best part of an overly schmaltzy story. Drawing its title from the outstanding work by investigative reporter Jason Fagone, it follows the older couple as they begin to game the lottery. You see, Jerry has recently retired and is uncertain about what to do with his “golden years.” He does not particularly want to go out on a boat and is more interested in solving puzzles with math. When he stumbles upon a way to do just that and make a whole lot of money at the same time, he throws himself into his newfound pursuit.
The woefully safe film only scratches the surface of this quite promising premise, opting to create more of a cheap “crowd-pleaser” than a genuinely compelling story. If you go back to read Fagone’s piece, which you absolutely should do if you want to get the whole story, it immediately becomes clear that his reporting of what actually happened far exceeds anything this adaptation is able to provide. In the written word, he was able to create a comprehensive character study that also doubled as a complex portrait of American capitalism that was going through an economic crisis. The film replicates none of this, cherry-picking out superficial details that it plays up in a conventional story without any of the authenticity or depth of what took place. It is all light calories and no substance, passing by in the blink of an eye without leaving any lasting impression. This extends not just to the details that give context to the time period, but to the actual characters themselves.
Both Jerry and Marge feel like shadows of their real-life counterparts, made into being more folksy without any sense of interest in portraying who these people actually were. Details from their real lives are introduced as throwaway lines that feel like halfhearted acknowledgments of more interesting people as opposed to actual scenes that would have added texture to the story. They are relegated to being cutesy cardboard cutouts, devoid of almost any history or emotion to the point of being underwritten. This is a perplexing decision that drastically limits what the actors are able to do as everything is just so shallow that you end up feeling like you do not know much of anything about them. While Jerry is shown to be a thoughtful person who often gets fixated on things, it glosses over all of the ways this manifested in reality. You come away getting only brief glimpses of who he and Marge actually were. It leaves us with little of anything meaningful to grasp onto, a reflection of its poor storytelling. It is a film that conveys its story via expositional dialogue as opposed to creating a rich visual narrative. It just wants to get to whatever new conventional conflict it can use to distract us from its lack of craft.
Said conflict mostly revolves around stuck-up college students who were all real though not nearly as central to the story as the film would lead you to believe. Each time the film cuts back to them lounging in dorm rooms or hatching a scheme to muscle out Jerry, it comes across as being unnecessarily forced. While there was some back-and-forth between the groups, the film positions them as being the primary antagonist in a manner that feels overwrought and out of place. It is the first of many ways that the film offers an easy enemy, including a borderline dishonest portrayal of a different reporter, to point at rather than the more complicated reality. As a result, the only thing the film succeeds at is offering a false comfort that undercuts the truth and tension of its story. It takes the easy way out at every turn. By comparison, Fagone’s reporting was mountains more honest and compelling that it feels like an entirely different story that the film just ignored. Reality was both incisive and engaging. The way he was able to lay out all the moving pieces of the story did not offer easy answers, though it rang far more true. Reading about the way the history of the country intertwined with the personal struggles of a single couple made both richer as a result. He brought to life a gripping story that revealed so much about the people at the center of it as well as the world they were living in. When you come away from it, you actually felt like you had some sense of who they were and what they were going through. It does not judge or absolve, merely observing with an eye for all the details that captured this moment in time.
This film adaptation does none of that, infusing everything with a tentative malaise that robs the story of what made it interesting. It takes something that was fascinating because of how unconventional it was only to then reduce it into being far more conventional and trite. For the film to even call itself Jerry & Marge Go Large feels dishonest when its narrative ambitions were so small. It completely lacks any creativity or courage, pushing its more interesting story into the background as it falls further into mundanity the longer it all goes on. When setting out to make an adaptation, especially when it is one that has so many unique layers to it, it is crucial to trust your audience and not sand down the complications of real life. Yet that is exactly what this film does. It should have been willing to eschew a typical Hollywood story in order to more fully capture what the journey of interesting people such as Jerry & Marge was actually like. This remains paramount as, at the end of the day, specificity is what gives life to a story. When we lose that, we lose the value of the story and the various nuances that we do not get to experience when everything is made into the same narrow narrative structure.