In Review Films

Predictable 'Win It All' offers little visual flair

Updated 22 May, 2017 07:03pm
Jake Johnson stars as Eddie Garrett
Jake Johnson stars as Eddie Garrett

Oscar-winning film-maker Martin Scorsese stated last year in an interview with the Associated Press news agency that, “Cinema is gone.” Many other revered directors have made similar observations about the future of cinema in the digital age. Images – moving as well as static – are routinely being consumed online, making cinema as we know it seem a little too dated a medium to survive.

This does not mean that cinema of all kinds is fated to die. Out of the old one is emerging a new cinema that presents new opportunities. For example, video-on-demand website Netflix made Win It All available globally, including in Pakistan, on April 7.

Such simultaneous availability of a film all over the world would not be possible for a cinema-house release. Win It All, being the independent film that it is, would not have even made it to Pakistani cinemas, let alone be (legally) available to Pakistani viewers on its very release day.

Changes in film distribution mechanisms have triggered cultural changes too, with the old tradition of going to a cinema to watch movies becoming increasingly rare. This brings up the question of watching a movie as a communal experience. Even Scorsese is unsure “what kind of experience is it going to be”.

This uncertainty, along with the latest technological innovations, has given film-makers new room to experiment and this experimentation is more conspicuous online than on traditional television. The most groundbreaking shows exist online because streaming services, unlike traditional television, can give unconventional stories time to find their audiences without worrying about broadcast schedules and viewership ratings. It is perhaps for these reasons that Joe Swanberg, director and co-writer of Win It All, has chosen the online space for the release of his film (alongside a limited release in cinemas).

Win It All is the story of Eddie Garrett (Johnson). In his late thirties, Garrett does not have a stable job and clearly does not have his life together. A twist in his tale occurs when an acquaintance of his who is going to prison gives him a bag full of cash for safekeeping.

Garrett tries to make a quick buck for himself by gambling with some of the money in the bag but, predictably, ends up losing badly. In the end, he is left with a small window of opportunity to win back the lost money or face the consequences of his decision to gamble — and his failure to win.

The plot is very straightforward, perhaps even predictable. You can foresee what is about to come next. But what sets Win It All apart from other gambling flicks is Swanberg’s characteristic slice-of-life storytelling approach. The camera often shoots from a distance, letting the action unfold without a change in the frame. This is a big departure from traditional gambling scenes that feature fast-paced frame changes, close-ups and cut-ins. By doing away with these techniques, the director almost entirely removes the sense of secrecy and alert associated with the genre.

Swanberg has a reputation for making genre-defying films but his technical choices in Win It All may strike as curious to some viewers — at least initially. They only start to make sense when his protagonist is compared to protagonists of other films in the gambling movie genre.

Unlike their previous collaborative work, Win It All feels a little conventional, not the least because its supporting cast fails to bring much to the table.

Let us take Ben Campbell – a smart MIT student who starts to count cards to pay his tuition – from the 2008 indie film called 21. Even in a classic like The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Eric Stoner, played by Steve McQueen no less, is a ‘stud poker player’. Garrett is neither drawn to gambling out of sheer necessity like Campbell, nor is he an accomplished player like Stoner. If anything, he is pretty bad at gambling and is not the underdog you may want to root for.

He also does not play against rich baddies in dingy low-lit casinos where men in suits stand around the table, intently looking at the game while puffing on cigars and sipping whiskey. Garrett sticks out even at his most high-stakes game since he is the only one on the table wearing a suit — his wealthy competitors are dressed casually with rolled up sleeves.

By this stage in the film, one can appreciate the absence of sleek editing. What place would that have in a film about a character that is anything but sleek? To those familiar with Swanberg’s style, this treatment is expected. He is a prominent member of the ‘mumblecore’ film movement — a subgenre of indie film-making characterised by a ‘natural’ feel and shoestring budgets. Rather than focusing on the plot, these films place emphasis on dialogue (which is often improvised instead of being scripted). Actors’ performances, thus, assume paramount importance in a film’s success or failure.

Since Win It All offers little visual flair and has a predictable script, it falls upon Johnson’s shoulders to bring Garrett to life. He certainly does a good job playing this flawed character.

Johnson, who has also co-written the film, has done some of his best work with Swanberg — though his claim to fame is his role in Fox TV sitcom New Girl. The two have previously collaborated on the wonderfully odd film Digging for Fire (2015) and Drinking Buddies (2013), the latter being arguably their best film together.

Their latest offering falls a little short of expectations. Unlike their previous collaborative work, Win It All feels a little conventional, not the least because its supporting cast fails to bring much to the table. Johnson, however, does share noteworthy chemistry with Keegan-Michael Key who plays Garrett’s friend and reluctant sponsor.

A common factor between the characters Johnson has played in all three films – and to some extent in his Fox TV show – is that each one of them is a man-child. Seen from this perspective, Win It All is essentially a coming-of-age story. Garrett may already be an adult but he still has plenty of growing up to do. By the end of the 88-minute running time, a lot about his life changes, yet it is clear that the character has not matured at all.

Win It All is clearly not the indie film of the year but fans of Swanberg and Johnson may still find themselves enjoying it. Other viewers may come across it online, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and decide to give it a shot. This laid-back, no expectations kind of viewing may let the film shine for them too.

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.