WIN IT ALL: Jake Johnson Gives A Career-Making Performance In This Mumblecore Crime Dramedy
[Originally published on FilmInquiry.com] Netflix’s latest original film, Win It All, marks Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson’s third professional collaboration as director and actor, respectively. Johnson, also a cowriter and producer on the film, gives a career-defining performance as a neurotic gambling addict, Eddie, with a troubling tendency to lose.
After Drinking Buddies’ critical success in 2013, Swanberg and Johnson joined creative forces in 2015’s Digging For Fire, with Johnson as a co-writer. Though Swanberg’s earlier work was structurally loose in plot, he seems to have found a muse with Johnson that is taking his career in wonderful new directions. In order to understand Swanberg, or at least contextualize his cinematic voice, one must first understand the quiet indie film movement, mumblecore.
A Brief History Of Mumblecore
Win It All was co-written and directed by Swanberg, one of the founders of the early 2000s indie sub genre, mumblecore. Johnson is also a recent mumblecore alumnus through his collaboration with brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) and Swanberg, and it shows most candidly in this film.
So, what is this strange-sounding, made-up word? Mumblecore as a film genre is, by stylistic means, an American revival of the Italian Neorealism movement of the 1940s. Just like Italy’s decades-ahead-of-its-time cinematic movement founded by Roberto Rossellini, earlier mumblecore films included non-professional actors in real settings, a method meant to capture this sense of unadulterated authenticity. However, whereas neorealism was meant to highlight sociopolitical issues, mumblecore focuses more on dialogue and character interactions over plot, providing an intimate window into its characters’ interpersonal relationships.
Along with Swanberg, the mumblecore genre was founded by Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass Brothers, Ry Russo-Young, and Aaron Katz, among others. The genre’s more recent influences include the 1990s French New Wave cinematic movement and the American independent filmmaking movement, revived by Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Jim Jarmusch.
Through their narrative structure and intentional pacing, Linklater’s Slacker and the Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), Smith’s Clerks and Mallrats, and Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Coffee And Cigarettes are important pillars in the industry indie story arc that led to the birth of mumblecore.
Win It All Is Mumblecore’s Graduation Party
Some 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. The show sacrifices the genre’s realism for shock-value. Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister) and Ry Russo-Young (Orphans), and Gia Coppola (Palo Alto) remain among the more accurate female voices in mumblecore’s evolution through their more realistic portrayals of interpersonal relationships in their respective filmographies.
Along with Shelton and Russo-Young, the Duplass Brothers and Swanberg have pushed the genre in a more narratively cohesive direction. Win It All is mumblecore’s swan song, in a sense, and marks one of the genre’s, and arguably Swanberg’s, most plot-driven film. It takes every palatable quality of its mumblecore, sheds the aimlessness that deterred viewers representing the earlier iterations of the genre, and expands Swanberg’s thematic scope. Even still, Swanberg can’t shed the occasional tangent, a scene or two that drag on a bit too long, nor should he. For the most part, these characteristic mumblecore qualities succeed in this film with the help of Johnson’s everyman presence.
Collaboration Is Everything For Swanberg
Unlike your average auteur, Swanberg is far more open to collaboration as a means fueling his creative vision, no doubt a result of his improvisational roots. He’s wrapped his arms firmly around the indie-horror scene by surrounding himself with genre masterminds Larry Fessenden and Adam Wingard. He’s shown his aptitude for drama, comedy, mystery, suspense, and romance. Suffice it to say, his creative reach is vast, in large part due to his immersion with other talents.
Audiences must tip their caps to cinematographer Eon Mora, who takes 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. He revels in the seedy, grimy settings of Eddie’s underground poker games. Dan Romer‘s eccentric, pre-disco-groove soundtrack is a wonderful throwback to seventies film scores that underscores Mora and Swanberg’s vision.
Johnson has been prone to typecast as the laid-back millennial over the past 10 years. While he’s flirting with stardom and finding more layered roles, he’s yet to find his big-screen breakout. Well, if you can’t find a role to get you past that plateau, then make one for yourself. Johnson 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. Apparently, his onscreen skill translates to his writing, creating naturalistic, believable dialogue along with Swanberg.
The gambling scenes allow Johnson the most freedom to showcase his improvisational aptitude. As Eddie gets further and further in debt, 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. The glue that holds such a change in pacing together in this film is one of the greatest Mexican actors and comedians working today, Aislinn Derbez, who plays Eva.
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 is a dedicated 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 career.
A Comedy Of Errors Executed By A Flawless Cast
Even with a solid script, leads, and a director, a film can be entirely dependent on its supporting cast. Johnson finally gets his due as a leading man, and exceeds expectations, equalled by his counterpart, Derbez. However, Keegan Michael Key and Joe Lo Truglio remain the standouts in the film; they give the best dramatic performances of their careers. Key adds another successful foray to his dramatic resume as Eddie’s transparent Gamblers Anonymous sponsor, Gene. Key’s background in stand-up and sketch comedy are ideal for Swanberg’s directorial tendencies.
Lo Truglio as Eddie’s brother, Ron, in particular, will shock audiences. The most emotional scenes in Win It All are those that occur between these two characters. The loyal Apatow alumnus breaks away from his awkward, goofball, man-child typecast, giving a layered performance as the concerned, internally torn Ron. Lo Truglio has matured as an actor, conveying heartbreak, empathy, worry, and forgiveness with ease, relying solely on facial expressions and genuine tears that feel absolutely earned.
The Payoff (Pardon The Pun) Is Worth The Time
Though it is indeed Swanberg’s most realized vision transposed onto screen, it still carries mumblecore’s characteristic diversions, seemingly innocuous quirks, and has a few unexpected narrative twists. However, viewers will be pleased with the high-stakes outcome in the end of Win It All. Though his film plays like a series of vignettes, as most of them do, Swanberg has become both grounded and creatively expanded as a result of Johnson’s repeated collaboration.
It goes without saying that Johnson will see more leading roles (the less relentless film critics will be willing to give him a second chance after Let’s Be Cops). However, Lo Truglio may just find himself appearing in more dramas in the near-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. And, as always, Key continues to make great choices in his selection of scripts. With another successful entry into his versatile filmography, Swanberg furthers the argument that he is among the seminal chameleons of indie filmmakers.
What are your thoughts? Are you a fan of Swanberg and Johnson’s newfound professional bromance? Do you think mumblecore is here to stay?
Win It All debuted on Netflix on April 7.