Even some of the best movies about gamblers stumble when it comes to poker authenticity.
In “The Sting,” for example, the card game on the train to Chicago pitting Paul Newman against Robert Shaw is filled with fundamental missteps, from a player saying, “I’ll call — and raise” (a poker felony known as a “string bet”) to Shaw adding $10,000 to his stack in the middle of hand (a poker felony that could get your fingers broken).
One of the many pleasures in Joe Swanberg’s smart, funny, just-edgy-enough, thoroughly entertaining slice of Chicago life “Win It All” is the sure-handed feel of the gambling scenes, whether Jake Johnson’s Eddie is playing in a back alley poker game, spending a rainy afternoon at the track or putting his future on the line in a private, high-stakes game in the suburbs.
Not that Swanberg (who co-wrote the script with Johnson) spends much time on clichéd scenes in which we see Eddie’s hand, then the dealer peels off some cards, then the villain makes a bet, then Eddie eyes the villain and goes all-in, etc. It’s more that the poker montages featuring Eddie’s reaction to bad beats or miracle victories, and the casual, sometimes off-screen dialogue of the dealers and the other players at the table, and the manner in which cards are dealt and chips are handled — all of it is spot on.
The same could be said of the film as a whole. This is such a sharp character study. From the leads to the bit players with one or two lines, everyone in this movie comes across as someone living a real life in a real time and place.
Johnson’s Eddie is the prototypical addicted gambler — alternating between admitting he has a sickness and seeking help, and betting his last dollar (or even money that’s not even his) because he KNOWS, he’s SURE, he’s ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE he’s going to win. When Eddie’s in the throes of a gambling marathon, he couldn’t care less about anything or anyone else in the world. He’s a jerk. A charming jerk who probably has a good heart, but a jerk nonetheless.
Just about the time Eddie goes broke for probably the 50th time in his adult life, a gift/plot device falls from the heavens. One of Eddie’s seedy acquaintances is about to do time. The guy stops off at Eddie’s place with a duffel bag, and tells Eddie if he keeps the bag safe until the guy gets out of prison, presto! Eddie gets $10,000.
What’s in the bag? Don’t worry about it, the convict tells Eddie. Don’t even look in the bag.
How long do you think that lasts? And what do YOU think is in the bag? Something that might tempt Eddie to scratch that perpetual gambling itch?
Eddie tries his best to resist temptation. He takes a legit job working for his older brother Ron (an excellent, low-key Joe Lo Truglio), a straitlaced family man and small business owner. He reconnects with his Gamblers Anonymous sponsor (Keegan-Michael Key in a typically witty and natural performance), whom he hasn’t seen in months. And in a real stroke of luck, he meets a warm, intelligent, beautiful nurse named Eva (Aislinn Derbez), who takes a liking to him against her better judgment.
Ah, but that duffel bag.
Director Swanberg keeps us updated on Eddie’s bankroll with simple graphics, e.g., “-$52,000.” Eddie walks that tightrope that many an addict traverses — keeping one foot planted in the regular-people world of jobs and family and romance and nights at the bar with friends, and another foot kicking up a storm in a murky shadow existence populated by professional gamblers going at it behind unmarked doors guarded by refrigerator-sized men.
“Win It All” is just the latest stellar collaboration between Swanberg and Johnson. (If you haven’t seen “Drinking Buddies” or “Digging for Fire,” please see “Drinking Buddies” and “Digging for Fire.”) This is their most conventional film in terms of story arc, but it still has a nifty, indie-without-trying-to-be-hipster feel. (The last scene is a beautiful example of how to achieve a satisfying conclusion without tying it in a bright red ribbon and adding glitter to the wrapping.)
Johnson deserves more acclaim for his acting. He has an onscreen persona similar to the immensely talented Oscar Isaac.
I know guys like Eddie. Johnson perfectly captures those guys.
Netflix presents a film directed by Joe Swanberg and written by Swanberg and Jake Johnson. No MPAA rating. Running time: 88 minutes. Premieres Friday on Netflix. Swanberg and Johnson will conduct a Q&A after a 7 p.m. Saturday screening at the Music Box Theatre.