Jerry doesn’t gamble.
Never has, never will. He’s a numbers guy, and he knows that the odds are always with the house. Blackjack? You’ve got a 42.2% chance to win. Play enough, you’re a guaranteed loser. Roulette? Yeah, 37-to-one odds when you bet it on a number. The lottery? Puleeze. Your odds of being struck by lightning are better. Like, 20,000 times better.
Why, Jerry even tells his CPA that putting a little more risk in his retirement portfolio is out of the question. “This is all we got,” Jerry says of he and Marge’s nest egg. “I don’t want to gamble with it.”
He needs every cent now, since retirement came a bit sooner than he hoped.
He had a good run at the Kellogg factory in Evart, Michigan. Best line runner they ever had, they told him. But they shut down his line and, with that, shut down his job. Go home, they told him. Relax. Enjoy yourself. These are your golden years. His family and friends said the same thing at his retirement party. They even bought him a boat.
But Jerry doesn’t want to fish. He wants to do something else with his life besides relax. Enjoy himself. The Golden Years leave him cold.
“I missed my chance,” he tells his wife, Marge. “I did everything I was supposed to do. Everything I had to do. Now I’m too old to do anything else.”
But then one morning, he spots an advertisement for a Michigan lottery game. WinFall, it’s called. It doesn’t offer a gargantuan prize like Powerball or MegaMillions. It entices with a more modest haul. And if the jackpot gets too big, it rolls down. When that happens, you don’t need five or six numbers to win. You just need four numbers, or even three, to collect a bit of cash.
But Jerry looks at the advert and notices that there’s a hole in the game. On those rolldown weeks, if someone was to buy enough tickets, that someone would win more than he lost. Guaranteed.
Jerry decides to test his theory with, oh, $2,000 of his and Marge’s savings account. And when that’s not quite a big enough sample size to turn the odds in his favor, he goes back and withdraws a bit more. He’ll take out $4,000 this time. No, $6,000. No, let’s make that eight grand. That should be enough, right?
So what if he just has $200 left in the bank. That $200 will soon have plenty of friends.
Sure, Jerry’s playing the lottery. But he’s not gambling, he insists. There’s no luck involved here, no real risk. It’s just numbers. Plain ol’ numbers.
Jerry just hopes that his numbers add up.
When Jerry’s daughter, Dawn, makes the drive to attend Jerry’s retirement party, Jerry tells her that it was a wise choice: The free hamburger is mathematically worth her two hours’ drive. Dawn’s a little exasperated by her father’s math fixation, but Marge smiles knowingly. “He just doesn’t know the formula for ‘I missed you.’”
Sure, Jerry’s love of numbers sometimes gets in the way of his relationships, but he loves the people in his life more than he can say. He cares for his kids (even if he has a tough time showing it), and he’s always asking about the well-being of his friends and neighbors—doing what he can to help them out a little. And he loves Marge more than anything.
So when Jerry discovers the lottery loophole, Marge encourages him to, literally, spread the wealth. “Maybe you were meant to be here,” she says, “To work in the factory and care about all these people the way you do. Because the day would come when you could help them.”
Jerry and Marge create their own little corporation, wherein they offer townspeople a share. That allows people to start new businesses or find some extra solvency. Moreover, most seem to drop much of their winnings back into the community—re-launching a beloved jazz festival, for instance—rather than spending the cash solely on themselves. For their part, Jerry and Marge’s lifestyle doesn’t seem to change at all.
What does change? Their relationship.
Marge encourages Jerry to dive into this crazy scheme, in spite of the initial risk it seems to carry. “Right now we’re losing something that matters even more,” she tells them. Their relationship has grown stale and rote: “I want to have fun,” she says.
Some might classify that as a selfish desire. Fun? We’re supposed to sacrifice and, if necessary, suffer. But in the context of a relationship—one that has lasted more than 40 years—I don’t think it is that selfish, because that fun helps preserve an incredibly important bond. Our own marriage experts will say how important it is to have fun as a couple—to experience new things and to keep a marriage from turning into just a tired business relationship, where all the couple talks about are school meetings and doctor appointments.
Soon, Jerry and Marge start having fun—so much so that they’re dancing in convenience stores as their tickets print out.
Outside Marge’s musings on whether they were “meant” to live their lives as they did, along with a few inescapable references to luck, there’s no overt spiritual content at all. (Unless you count Jerry saying “Holy cow” once.)
Marge mentions to daughter Dawn that she doesn’t remember the last time she and Jerry had sex. But when the couple move their ticket-buying operation from Michigan to Maine (after Michigan’s version of the game is discontinued), Marge suggests that situation should change.
They check into a hotel room (which someone later says was made for “prostitutes and drug dealers”). And while Jerry is all ready to count the tickets they bought (so they can see how much they made), Marge says, “Could it wait ‘til morning?” She glances at Jerry’s crotch. Jerry gets the point and the two kiss and fall into bed. The next morning, we see both of them still in bed, in their underwear, enjoying the morning in married companionship.
The couple seem to enjoy a closer relationship after that. The two celebrate their 46th anniversary in a deserted convenience/liquor store (they have an understanding with the manager), and they dance to what we assume was a song they danced to back when they were dating.
The convenience store manager is unhappily married, and we see his estranged wife at times—at least once in a tight-fitting outfit. He later divorces her, and he tells Marge that he needs to find someone more like her. But “someone who’s still fertile … and can have babies.” Jerry walks around the house in his underwear.
Jerry’s only attempt to launch his fishing boat goes awry. The boat falls off the trailer, scrapes asphalt and the engine is knocked off. Jerry kicks the boat in frustration.
When a Harvard student discovers the same hole in the game that Jerry did, the student—Tyler—goes to dubious lengths to push Jerry and his fellow players in Evart out of the game. When Tyler’s efforts go too far, Jerry drives to Harvard, and he admits that he had thought about punching the student in the face. But on the long drive to Cambridge, Jerry changed his mind.
While Jerry’s own language is pretty pristine, the same cannot be said of others—particularly Harvard kid Tyler. We hear (mostly from Tyler and his friends) seven s-words. We hear a smattering of other swears and crudities as well, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—,” “p-ssed” and “sucks.” God’s name is misused once.
When Jerry and Marge first show up in Massachusetts to buy literally thousands of tickets (with literally thousands of dollars in cash), the manager asks, “Are you drug dealers?” (“No,” Marge says. “Professional lottery players.”)
As Jerry and Marge print out their tickets in that same Massachusetts convenience/liquor store, the manager—drinking and carousing with friends out in the parking lot—comes in and asks them if they want a bong hit “really quick.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Jerry says. (Marge simply says they’re not interested.)
Jerry hides a bottle of champagne behind a row of Yoo-Hoos in the convenience store so that he and Marge can drink it for their anniversary. When Tyler barges in on their celebration, they offer him some champagne. “I only drink Jager[meister] and Red Bull, but thank you,” he says.
People drink beer and wine at parties and get-togethers. The manager’s wife pulls a 12-pack out of her husband’s store and calls him a “loser” as she walks out without paying.
Obviously, Jerry and Marge Go Large is predicated on a game of chance. When most people play the lottery, it is unquestionably gambling—and gambling, of course, has historically been frowned upon by most Christian denominations. But Jerry insists when he and his group do so, it’s not gambling at all: He knows he’s going to make money. It’s not a game of chance, but math, pure and simple.
But many people in the film wonder whether it is wrong. Jerry reassures everyone that it’s completely legal, and he keeps the losing lottery tickets in his garage to prepare for the inevitable audit. Still, Marge feels the thrill that comes with coloring outside the cultural lines.
“It really does feel like we’re robbing a bank,” Jerry says.
“Nah,” Marge says. “This is going to be more fun.”
If Jerry and Marge stick to the right side of the law, Tyler and his Harvard pals do not. They hack into the Massachusetts lottery to manipulate aspects of the game, and Tyler threatens to do the same with the bank accounts of Jerry and all of his fellow players. He does it all behind the back of his well-heeled father, too—even as he takes investment money from some of his associates. He encourages fellow Harvard students to help him—and asks them to lie to their parents to get the requisite cash.
When Jerry first begins to play the lottery, he keeps it from Marge—hiding the winnings in a tub of popcorn and a cereal box. But he later confesses. We hear a reference to toilets.
At one point, Marge says that she wishes they could win a jackpot—a real jackpot—just once during this crazy scheme.
“I won the jackpot before we even started,” Jerry tells her with a smile.
The money is secondary in Jerry’s grand plans. People come first. And first among all the people who Jerry cares about is, unquestionably, Marge.
Jerry and Marge Go Large is based on a true story. The real Jerry and Marge Selbee seem, in interviews, to be the same loving, level-headed people that we see in the film (played by Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening). Their lifestyles never changed. They used the money to help their community. It was only a matter of time before their feel-good story made it to the screen.
But as sweet as the story is, and as honorable as their intentions may have been, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ exhortation to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. They knew they were taking advantage of a flawed system. Legally, Jerry and Marge were in the clear. Morally? That’s perhaps up to the viewer to decide.
The movie runs into some similar ticklish questions.
Jerry, being a numbers guy, could count up the movie’s problems. Jerry and Marge Go Large lands in PG-13 territory mainly due to language. We hear a few references to drugs and plenty more point to gambling. And it was a little sad that a pending divorce was seen as such a good thing.
The movie’s positives aren’t as easy to count on your fingers. But, as Jerry knows too, they’re no less important. To see a loving couple entering their fifth decade of marriage—still in love and growing closer—is no small thing. Neither is seeing the couple’s love of their children and community. That’s all displayed in massive contrast to Harvard student Tyler, who’s as selfish as a 5-year-old and whose bitterness seems well beyond his years.
It’s telling that the film features a couple of older do-gooders facing against a young, smirking whippersnapper. Jerry and Marge Go Large is made for adults, not kids looking for a gag a minute or teens enamored with CGI explosions. The movie’s issues are easier for adults to navigate. Is it a perfect movie? No. But it’s a sweet one, and a kind one. And that, today, is no small thing to say.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.