Monday, April 17, 2017

'Win It All' review

Spring break is always a good time for me to catch up on movies, relaxing and enjoying the best that Hollywood has to offer. Usually that means getting in the car and heading to the movie theater- but not this year. April 2017 might be the most abysmal month for movies I've seen in recent memory, with only a limited degree of salvation at the art house theaters. Sure, Colossal looks fun, The Lost City of Z is getting rave reviews, and Free Fire is a total blast, but when only one mainstream movie (The Fate of the Furious) generates even the slightest amount of interest on my part, you know things are in trouble. I've been struggling to find the motivation to head to theaters to see a film like Power Rangers, The Boss Baby or Going in Style, and it really isn't going to get better until James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 rolls around to kick off the summer season. After an unusually strong March, the studios are hitting a slump with their worst month in a while.

And to make matters worse, Netflix is releasing a plethora of exciting, compelling original content. I've already devoured the three-part documentary series Five Came Back, a thrilling breakdown of how five Golden Age filmmakers shaped our perception of World War II through their work overseas. And while it hasn't received the best reviews, I'm certainly going to check out The Discovery in the coming days, a film with an incredibly fascinating concept. Netflix is winning the content game, and while this year will prove to be a very strong one for movie theaters, the streaming giant's all-encompassing power is only growing. Hell, I didn't even know Joe Swanberg's Win It All was going to be on the platform so soon after its South by Southwest premiere, but as soon as I heard that it would hit Netflix on April 7, it shot to the top of my list. And quite frankly, it's one you shouldn't miss. It's the kind of low-key character study that I enjoy, and it features a strong central performance by Jake Johnson. Swanberg's personal, inviting touch is thoroughly appealing, and the story is as uncomfortable as it is charming. Win It All might not be any kind of grand epic, but it's memorable and thrilling in its own unique way.

Eddie Garrett (Johnson) is addicted to losing. Well, not exactly. He's addicted to gambling, but like all of his fellow addicts, he loses more than he wins. He works parking for Cubs games, then takes the little sum of money that he makes and gambles it away at night. What sets the plot of Win It All in motion is a small windfall of money- however, it's much more complicated than that. When an old friend named Michael (Jose Antonio Garcia) shows up at Eddie's door and tells him that he'll be going to prison for six months, he offers Eddie a deal. If Eddie protects a duffel bag for Michael while he's behind bars, Eddie will receive $10,000 when he gets out. He doesn't even have to do anything- he just has to set the bag aside and leave it there. Eddie accepts the deal, but quickly becomes tempted to gamble with the thousands of dollars in the bag.

Of course, this can only end badly. Eddie's sponsor, Gene (Keegan Michael Key), even tells him this much. But Eddie can't resist- he takes $500 out of the bag and quickly turns it into $2,000, but it doesn't stop there. Soon enough, Eddie is $20,000 in debt. With his back against the wall, he turns to his brother (Joe Lo Truglio) for a job at the family lawn maintenance company. With a steady job, Eddie begins to feel good about his life again. He meets a beautiful girl (Aislinn Derbez), proves himself as a good worker, and starts to overcome his addiction. But when an unexpected twist throws his plan into chaos, Eddie will have to delve back into the world he just escaped to save his life as he knows it.

This is my first experience with the work of Joe Swanberg, but I have no doubt that I'll explore his films more in the future. His relaxed, conversational approach allows the characters and the dialogue to breathe, creating a naturalistic atmosphere that effortlessly generates empathy. Swanberg is both a terrific writer and director, and his rich characters and conversations are assisted by a grainy handheld style that feels like a throwback to a bygone era of indie films. Win It All is almost documentary-like, but it maintains a cinematic sensibility that vividly allows it to draw the audience in. I'm a sucker for a good gambling film, and Swanberg puts his stamp on the genre with an easy-going feel that still manages to never let the audience off the hook.

Much of this can be credited to the fact that Swanberg and co-writer/star Jake Johnson create an incredibly memorable central character with Eddie Garrett. Many of the protagonists at the center of gambling films can be viewed as miserable sad-sacks, perpetual losers who have screwed over the people who care about them. One of my favorite gambling movies is 2015's Mississippi Grind, and it's safe to say that it's quite difficult to root for Ben Mendelsohn's Gerry. Eddie is the opposite- he's the life of the party who just can't help but make that extra bet. Johnson is an endlessly likable screen presence, and I was consistently surprised by how invested I was in Eddie's journey. He's devoted to his own self-destruction, but at his core, he's a kind, purely good guy. He makes so many terrible choices, but he's a good boyfriend, a good brother, a good uncle. He only wants to help the people around him, and yet he just can't resist risking it all on the roll of the dice. Johnson has previously emerged as a talented supporting actor in films like Jurassic World and 21 Jump Street, but here, he proves that he's a tremendous lead performer. Johnson is a true everyman, and Eddie Garrett is a truly memorable character.

Win It All is one of the most pleasantly unexpected surprises of the year so far, a light-hearted gambling comedy that never forgets the nasty pain that comes with addiction. It's a film centered firmly on its central character, and his personal life is never anything less than wholly compelling. Jake Johnson is a true star in the making, and if he continues to work with Swanberg, I have no doubt that their collaboration will produce more spectacular films. Win It All has been criticized by some for having low stakes, but when the conversations are this entertaining and the characters are this warm and inviting, the fate of the world doesn't need to be at stake. Netflix is making the case that their platform allows for smaller movies to be discovered- if that's the case, there's no excuse for anyone to miss out on this excellent film.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.6/10)

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