Win It All
Directed by Joe Swanberg
A gambling addict faces a conflict when entrusted with keeping a bunch of money that isn't his.
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★★★★★ review by Billy Langsworthy on Letterboxd
Loved every frame of this.
Jake Johnson is brilliant (as is every supporting character), the music is incredible and it manages to be funny, tense, relaxed, pacey and sweet without ever missing a beat.
It feels like some lost classic from the Seventies.
★★★½ review by Kevin Jones on Letterboxd
Pure mumblecore, yet scripted beyond what is typical for a Joe Swanberg film, Win it All also happens to be Swanberg's best film yet. Putting him alongside Jake Johnson yet again, the film stars Johnson as Eddie Garrett. A degenerate gambler who is asked by a friend to watch a bag full of money, he naturally gambles it all away and must earn it all back before the friend gets out of jail. Yet, coinciding with this, he tries to fix his life with new girlfriend Eva (Aislinn Derbez) lighting his fire again, brother Ron (Joe Lo Truglio) giving him a job in the family landscaping company, and his sponsor Gene (Keegan Michael-Key) offering him advice and guiding him through his rehabilitation. A loosely plotted film, it has echoes of other gambling-centered films, particularly Robert Altman's California Split for how the film just focuses on these gambling addicts going about their daily life as addicts. Yet, Win it All switches it up by making this a compelling character study of a man that wants to change and gets the audience to root for him, no matter how many bad choices he makes.
Initially making all the wrong moves, Eddie rejects a job offer from his brother and continues to gamble compulsively. It is only when he loses the money of somebody whose money should not be lost does he actually begin to change. However, until then, he is a largely detestable character. It is clear that Swanberg has learned from films such as Happy Christmas where the self-destructive nature of the central addict character is repulsive and leads to a film that gets chastised for having such an unlikable protagonist. Win it All begins much the same way as that film with Eddie hanging out with his settled-in and high-achieving brother and his family, divulging just how destitute his situation is and expressing his hopeless dreams and falsehoods about his current lifestyle. Watching him lie and then go out and gamble all night yet again is a tough cycle to watch and one that makes us inherently want to root against him and just be put to a stop.
Yet, Swanberg manages to make him incredibly sympathetic. We see him fail, but having him meet Eva when at a gambling high and right before a big fall shows the stakes put before him. He must put together his life and quickly if he wishes to have this great girl in his life. This gives the film good stakes, but also makes him more likable and a guy that you root for. Prior to this, he was hurting just himself. Now, we want to see him succeed to not hurt somebody else. Scenes of them together or him hanging out with family as he recovers from gambling all point to this same aspect of the film. As he changes from being unlikable to an impeccably sympathetic man, we want him to succeed and be happy at the end. When things begin going wrong, our heart breaks for him and want to see him put it back together again. Yet, in this character study, Swanberg does misstep. While largely just a look at the life of Eddie and shot and written incredibly realistically, the ending feels like movie fantasy. It dispatches of the low-key mumblecore stylings of the film and embraces a more commercial dramatic ending akin to Rounders or another gambling film when Eddie sets out to win back all of the money. It is unfortunate for a film that is such an intimate look at gambling addiction made by a director who is unafraid to just let them things happen and not script them, only for it to u-turn and become incredibly scripted and cliched at the very end.
As a comedy, the film is mostly focused on telling jokes. Instead, it presents real life scenarios and finds the comedy in everyday life. Encounters between Eddie and his brother Ron really show as this enjoy family life or just mess around with each other as friends and brothers do. Yet, the comedic highlight of the film is Keegan-Michael Key. Absolutely hysterical in his role as Gene, his character is casually funny without really trying and brings a lightness and great comedic zip to the film at all times when he is on-screen. As a foil to Johnson's more serious and downtrodden characters, Key's loose and supportive sponsor role is perfection.
A funny and engaging character study, Win it All becomes a bit too scripted and conventional in its climax and third act, but until then, it is a loosely put together and highly unique film, even if it still falls into the mumblecore genre of filmmaking though with a bit more structure than usual. With this added structure, Swanberg shows that these stories about lost 20-30 somethings can find an aim and serve a purpose instead of just being an hour and a half of characters walking around and driving themselves further down in the pit of despair. For this reason, Win it All is certainly the biggest win of Swanberg's career, even if it needs some additional polishing.
★★★★½ review by Tim Burnham on Letterboxd
A great Swanbergian riff on the gambler tale. The first and third acts are mostly what you expect from the genre and don't stray much at all, but the second act is a reprieve that leans in and goes full Swanberg. Which means it's improvy and plotless and focused solely on building genuine human connection and trial.
It works. Jake Johnson is excellent and proves once again he can handle heavier roles and deserves weightier material. And when the plot folds back in to bring it all to a close, it meshes perfectly together. And there's a great scene at the end that subverts the classic gambler ending in a tense and interesting way.
It's a slight film, you could argue it's not much of one, but it's well made and satisfying in that Swanberg way. It's his best looking film to date and while Drinking Buddies is more searing with the depths of pain in the relationships, Win it All is a solid competitor at the top.
This is one that kind of tests my rating system a little though. I rate films on how close to perfect they get to what they aim to be. And this one is a solid 4.5. It could be a little bolder and more substantial in small pockets but overall it achieves what it wants beautifully and brings a fresh spin to a tired genre. But it just looks weird because the last film I reviewed was The Wrestler, which I also gave a 4.5. So I guess PSA, my ratings aren't in competition and don't translate between films. The Wrestler is a better film but they both get similarly close to their own ideas of perfection.
★★★½ review by Zach Ralston on Letterboxd
These days I'll take a movie with poker scenes that even gets 40% of the stuff right, and this fits the bill. (But it made me cringe watching the dealer deal the flop one card at a time -- no high-stakes player would stand for that).
Doesn't really do anything that a ton of other gambling-addict films haven't already done (thinking mostly of OWNING MAHOWNY and CALIFORNIA SPLIT), but earns its keep with the relationships, especially the one between Johnson and Lo Truglio. The latter gives the most realistic performance he's ever done, in a career of hammy (and hilarious) over-the-top characters. Keegan Michael Key is also quite good.
Not sure the "moral of the story" really measures up, but it's nice to see that Swanberg and Johnson evade the typical cliches of the addict genre and don't get overly melodramatic. People listen to each other, and there's a lot of humanity with every character here -- even the gangster. Still not sure exactly what Eva sees in Eddie, but I'll buy that a single mother with a tough nurse schedule would give him some slack.
One more thing to add -- there's been some anti-Netflix rantings around the internet, lately coming from the wonderful, thoughtful, wish-I-could-write-remotely-as-well-as-him genius David Ehrlich, but I mean come on. Netflix is doing great work helping films like this get seen. I doubt I'd have made it to the theater for this, but luckily I live in Los Angeles where I could at least have had a chance. What if I were in Fresno? Or Albuquerque? Or Valdosta or Ashland or Salem? Indies that play for two weeks in a handful of big-city markets do nobody any good even though you can say some fortunate cinephiles like me saw them "on the big screen." It's much better when the flyover-state moviegoers who can only see Netflix stuff (because small theaters are closing down, video stores are gone, etc.) get a chance to see this and the Macon Blair movie and you-name-it. I love what Netflix is doing and it's easy to find them on the service and easy to read places online that publish the premieres of these films. Distribution landscape is different now and instead of blaming the people who actually spend money to make and display a variety of content, how about you celebrate that more people will get eyeballs on art from the people making said art? When a filmmaker cries tears of joy when his movie gets bought by Netflix, perhaps that's a sign they're doing good, not evil.
★★★½ review by Patrick Devitt on Letterboxd
As with just about every Netflix original film that doesn't happen to star Adam Sandler, it's a real shame that this hasn't been getting much traction leading up to its release today. Swanberg appears to have entered a new chapter in his filmmaking career after collaborating with Netflix last year for the production of his totally delightful 8-part television series, Easy. Continuing to work with the company that apparently has an endless supply of money, Swanberg's first feature collaboration with Netflix finds him working again on his new wavelength that Easy set the ball in motion with last Fall.
It's nice to see Swanberg taking a step back from his traditional style of filmmaking that we as an audience have become accustomed to over the years. His latest, Win It All plays out like a crossover between Robert Altman's California Split met with Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Meeting these two influences, Swanberg's recent changeover in the DP department since moving over to Netflix has really allowed him to open up his cinematic canvas. The pulchritude of cinematographer Eon Mara's filmic grain matched with Swanberg's strong focus on landscape resembles the recent outpour from Brooklyn filmmakers like Dustin Guy Defa.
Swanberg has always placed an involved focus on relationships throughout the trajectory of his career. Whether it be marital partners, plain ol' friendships, or even a dramatic feud between people, there's a real sense of understanding for each member of the party. Every relationship in his film, whether it be the focus of the film or a brief encounter, Swanberg's marvelously deft skills as a filmmaker allows for a clear understanding of each respective side of the table. It's his level of sheer commitment to the characters and their relationships that makes his work truly one of a kind, as no one else working today quite establishes the inner-character relationships in their films like Joe Swanberg.
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