Making a Cinephile: ‘Win It All’ Finally Provides Jake Johnson With a Role Worthy of His Talent
Netflix’s latest original film, ‘Win It All,” was written and directed by Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”), one of the founders of the early 2000s indie sub genre, mumblecore. The film stars Jake Johnson, also a cowriter and producer on the film and mumblecore alumnus. Mumblecore is very much a revival of the Italian Neorealism movement of the 1940s in film; it is characterized by realism, focusing on dialogue and character relationships over plot. Just like Italy’s famous neorealism movement founded by Roberto Rossellini, earlier mumblecore films included non-professional actors in real settings, a method meant to capture this sense of unadulterated realism.
Along with Swanberg, the mumblecore genre was founded by Andrew Bujalski, Mark and Jay Duplass, Ry Russo-Young, and Aaron Katz, among others. On top of Italian Neorealism, the genre’s more recent influences include the 1990s French New Wave cinematic movement and the American independent filmmaking movement, started by Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. Through their narrative structure and intentional pacing, Linklater’s “Slacker” and the “Before Trilogy,” as well as Smith’s “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” are important pillars in the industry indie story arc that led to the birth of mumblecore.
Johnson gives a revelatory performance as a likable but self-destructive gambling addict, Eddie, with a troubling tendency to lose. He is arguably the most natural person in front of a camera of his generation; his ability to improvise, riff with his costars, and harness energy to push the scene forward in exciting new directions is unparalleled. His brother, Ron (Joe Lo Truglio) is the stable sibling in the family, constantly trying to lure him into the family business that he’s taken over as a means to get closer to him and make sure he does not succumb to his urges. As a debt owed, an old business associate gives him a bag to watch for six months while he serves time in prison. Lo-and-behold, that bag turns out to a bundle of seemingly endless cash.
When a gambling addict gets a bag of money, it is only a matter of time before they make the automated decision to go down the inevitable path of betting. So, Eddie, much to the strong opposition of his Gamblers Anonymous sponsor, Gene (Keegan Michael Key), begins to gamble with this newfound money. The gambling scenes that ensue allow Johnson the most freedom to showcase his improvisational aptitude. As Eddie gets further and further in debt (until he is nearly through the $50,000), the film’s mood deftly shifts from an easy-going, stream-of-consciousness, slice of life portrayal of a well-meaning man, to an anxiety-ridden, edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride in the third act.
While Eddie tries to climb out of the ditch he digs himself into, he meets a beautiful woman named Eva (one of the greatest living Mexican actors and comedians alive, Aislinn Derbez). Eva is perfect for Eddie; she has a good head on her shoulders, a full-time job as a nurse to support her son, and a loyal mother. Eva is the opposite of Eddie, but equally credited to Swanberg and Johnson’s script, Derbez and Johnson sell their onscreen chemistry so well, it is in these moments where the film’s heartbeat is felt the most. Derbez gives one of, if not the best U.S. dramatic performance of her storied career.
Even with Johnson finally getting his due as a leading man, and exceeding expectations, equalled by his counterpart, Derbez, Keegan Michael Key and Joe Lo Truglio remain the standouts in the film; they give the best dramatic performances of their careers. Lo Truglio, in particular, will shock audiences. The most emotional scenes in ‘Win It All’ are those that occur between Eddie and Ron. The loyal Apatow alumnus breaks away from his awkward, goofball, man-child typecast, giving a layered performance as Ron. Lo Truglio has matured as an actor, conveying heartbreak, empathy, concern, and forgiveness with ease, relying solely on facial expressions and genuine tears that feel absolutely earned.
This is where the mumblecore genre continues to thrive, in film’s such as this one, Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” the Duplass brothers’ “Blue Jay,” and, well everything they have ever put their hands on, really. Many consider Lena Dunham’s HBO original series, “Girls,” to be the natural evolution of the mumblecore genre, but it is really just a devolved, hyperbolized mockery of it. It is a far stretch to refer to “Girls” as a product of mumblecore. Through their more realistic portrayals of interpersonal relationships in their films, Lynn Shelton (“Your Sister’s Sister”) and Ry Russo-Young (“Orphans”) remain the most prominent female voices in mumblecore today.
Viewers will be pleased with the high-stakes payoff in the end of “Win It All,” with a few unexpected narrative twists. Though the film plays like a series of vignettes, like most of his films, this is certainly Swanberg’s most narratively cohesive directorial effort, perhaps grounded by Johnson’s collaboration, or, as always, his drive to try (and usually succeed) at expanding his grasp. It goes without saying that Johnson will see more leading roles (the more relentless, less-detached-from-reality film critics will be willing to give him a second chance after “Let’s Be Cops”). However, Lo Truglio may just be appearing in more dramas in the future; he’s certainly always had the range as an actor, but Swanberg and Johnson find the perfect breakaway role for him in the character of Ron. Audience’s must tip their caps to Swanberg and cinematographer, Eon Mora, who take the viewer back to an atmosphere reminiscent of seventies gambling films through the gritty color palate, post-production editing, and colorful animated block title treatments. With another successful entry into his versatile filmography, Swanberg furthers the argument that he is among the seminal chameleons of indie filmmakers.
“Win It All” is distributed by Netflix, and was released on digital streaming platforms on April 7, 2017.