Win It All is streaming on Netflix right now.
Joe Swanberg is an increasingly prolific writer, director and actor who should always be loved around these parts for 2012’s Drinking Buddies. Though he started directing almost a decade before, as part of the early-aughts mumblecore wave, it was with the careless flow and flawless cast of Drinking Buddies that Swanberg seemed to find his groove. Since then, Swanberg’s films have been more hit-and-miss and are often carried more by the charisma of the cast than anything else. Swanberg’s films are not tightly plotted, densely scripted affairs. He writes a brief outline, talks about things with his cast, and then films their improvisational takes, often using “a lot of first takes or second takes.”
With Swanberg’s most recent effort, Win It All, the weight of the film rides almost exclusively on star Jake Johnson, who is in virtually every scene. Johnson plays Eddie Garret, a degenerate gambler who regulars at a Chinatown casino. One day he is asked to hold onto a bag full cash while the bag’s owner does a quick stint in jail. “…This is an interesting opportunity,” Johnson’s Garret says to the bag. And you can see where this is going. Johnson has always been an actor who is both likable and outrageously funny, while always seeming to have some darkness or pathos operating behind the scenes. All of that is in full play in Win It All and as likable as Johnson is when he’s playing the lighter moments, he absolutely kills it when asked to dig into the sadness and horror of an addiction that his Garret knows he needs to walk away from but just cannot.
Even though there is more of a plot thread than usual for a Swanberg film, it’s a fairly straightforward plot that you can see coming, but that thread of a plot actually gives rise to something else that carries the film as much as Johnson, and it’s the Tension. My lord, the tension of an addict on a bender is awful to watch yet you cannot look away. I love gambling and watching poker movies, but so many of these scenes are painfully intense. In fact, Swanberg occasionally flashes a number on screen to let the audience know how much Johnson’s Garret is up or down after a given run, and more than once, a friend sitting next to me let out a low, guttural groan of pain on some of the “down” numbers.
But with Johnson, the film easily swings back from the more visceral moments, never letting itself get bogged down. The rest of the cast, mostly with significantly smaller roles, carry their weight (has Keegan-Michael Key ever not?), but Joe Lo Truglio is a surprising stand-out. This is a more nuanced and underplayed role than we are used to seeing from him in things like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and he delivers. In fact, the film has a great scene between his character and Johnson’s — who are brothers — that has instantly become one of my favorite movie scene representations of the combined love and fucking-with-you-in-a-way-that-cuts-deep that exists between siblings.
Win It All has a wonderful lived-in tone and style, thanks to how Swanberg films and edits his movies. It’s tense, funny, well-structured and carried by strong performances. And yet, there is something off about it. Namely, the ending. The ending does not work (and while your mileage may vary, I know others felt the same). I want to love this movie, but because I hate the ending, I walked away from the film down on it as a whole. It’s funny because were it an earlier chunk of scenes that did not work, the rest of what does work so well in the film would have largely drowned that out by the time things were wrapped up. But there’s nothing left after this ending to wash that taste out. It makes Win It All a perfect Netflix movie because as soon as you’re done watching it, you can jump on an episode Archer to wash the hate away.
Win It All had its world premiere at the 2017 South by Southwest Conference and starts airing on Netflix on April 3, 2017.