For anyone who first encountered indie auteur Joe Swanberg in his nano-budget days of both literal and figurative onscreen onanism, the idea that his films might one day be almost too tidy in their clockwork plotting and crowdpleasing sweetness would have seemed absurd. Yet that’s precisely the trade-off offered by his latest, “Win It All,” which casts a never-better Jake Johnson as an endearingly hopeless small-time gambler who finds redemption at the worst possible time. Funny, warm, and broken-in in all the right ways, “Win It All” marries Swanberg’s loping, observational style with a plot that wouldn’t have been out of place in an old-school Warner Bros. melodrama, and ends up dealing a surprisingly strong hand.
Swanberg first began making overtures to audiences outside mumblecore’s closed feedback loop with “Drinking Buddies” and “All the Light in the Sky.” But it was with his first venture into episodic television, Netflix’s “Easy,” that he began to display real discipline, honing his signature obsessions into tight, well-harmonized vignettes. “Win It All” – which is also destined for Netflix next month – sees him push even further into the mainstream, and it’s impressive how well he’s found his footing.
The director’s three-time collaborator Johnson (who also co-scripted) delivers his most fully-realized character to date as Eddie, a quick-talking, down-on-his-luck Chicago poker player. Unlike so many cinematic gamblers, from Fast Eddie Felson to Michael Clayton, there’s absolutely nothing glamorous about Eddie’s compulsions; jabberjawing his way through scummy back alley card tables with his ratty sweatshirts and ancient flip-phone, he strikes a pretty pitiable figure. Yet like so many real-world gamblers, his original sin isn’t arrogance or venality, but rather a suicidally unfounded sense of optimism, and he remains as huggable as he is exasperating.
Stumbling home after an all-night losing streak, Eddie finds an imposing gangster named Michael (Jose Antonio Garcia) waiting in his living room. To Eddie’s surprise, Michael hasn’t come to collect, but rather to offer him a business proposition. He’s about to head away for a six-month prison bid, and he needs Eddie to stash a bag for him until he gets out. Eddie’s future reward for simply leaving the bag untouched in his closet: $10,000. It’s scarcely a few days before temptation gets the better of him and he unzips it. Down below a procession of increasingly ridiculous weapons, he finds a stash of cash. No points for guessing what he does with it.
Eddie’s Gamblers Anonymous sponsor (Keegan-Michael Key) is incredulous when he learns of his plans. Why ruin a no-risk arrangement for big money when he’s inevitably going to lose it all at the tables? But Eddie finally hits a stretch of good luck, and meets a gorgeous Mexican nurse named Eva (Aislinn Derbez) while celebrating at the bar afterwards. His fortune is short-lived, however, and it isn’t long before he’s gotten himself deep into debt.
As soon as he hits rock bottom, a funny thing happens: Eddie discovers he actually likes earning an honest day’s pay. After begging for a job as a landscaper from his disapproving older brother (a winningly dyspeptic Joe Lo Truglio) Eddie starts socking away money. He goes on a series of breakfast dates with Eva, who begins to consider introducing him to her daughter. (“Seven years old?” Eddie marvels. “Wow, full kid.”) He goes bowling without even trying to “make things interesting.” Then he gets a surprise collect call from the local prison: Michael is getting out early.
Swanberg makes deft use of onscreen numbers to chart Eddie’s winnings and losses; he builds the film’s romance into a believable (and, unusually for this director, largely chaste) courtship; and he stages a climactic card game with a sure touch for pacing, tension, and steam-valve humor. But none of this would work without Johnson’s hapless charm at its center. You may not know any compulsive gamblers, but you’ve surely met his type before. You hate him, you love him, you’ve made excuses for him, and you’ve definitely loaned him money. Watching Johnson’s performance, you’ll start to nurture a small sliver of hope that he might some day even pay you back.
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