Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that the Joe Swanberg of old has gone through a metamorphosis. The man who made Brooklyn swoon and established critics mad enough to challenge him to a boxing match with cheap and tiny flicks like LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs has blossomed into a star-accepting occasional genre stylist. Hell, the dude’s even releasing his shit straight to Netflix now. His latest project for that service, Win It All, is a hustling movie about a gambler losing other people’s money that’s only slightly less funny than the Mark Wahlberg remake of The Gambler and four times as accomplished.

Eddie (Jake Johnson) is a compulsive gambler. He wakes up each morning and parks cars near Wrigley Field for some spare cash and then goes and spends his cash at a sketchy after-hours casino; he likes the thrill of losing, he says. After a long night of bad hands, he arrives home to find a crook (José Antonio Garcia) in his kitchen. Guy has to do some time, and wants Eddie to watch a duffel bag for him while he’s in the joint (he’ll pay him ten grand for his trouble, too) and to not look in the bag while he’s gone. Eddie’s an impulsive guy, and he decides, after a period of deliberation, to open the damn thing. Inside is a lot of money,and Eddie decides to go to the casino. I bet you can guess where this is headed.

Now that much of mumblecore has been absorbed into the aesthetic of modern cinema, Swanberg’s been edging closer and closer to both formula and an acceptance of the unreality of those plots in the cinema. And it allows him to make a memorable hangout movie, as well. Win It All is nothing if not a formulaic movie about a gambler fucking up and unfucking himself from the bad situation he’s in, and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. It’s got a tight script for a movie that really relies on the occasional bit of improv, and there are some truly great moments peppered throughout. There’s an easy humor about the whole thing. Like the mumblecore stereotype, it still looks like grit-covered shit, but that might be because of the size of the screen I watched it on (each pixel in the digital noise was about as big as my pinky finger), but it’s an affable movie regardless.

The casting is fine, with two true lovely performances at its heart. Johnson might be the quintessential Swanberg protagonist at the end of the day. He’s brilliant at coming off like a ne’er-do-well bullshitter who can make you laugh, but he can center it all around a real and deeply rooted emotional core. And he’s got a truly great co-star in Joe Lo Truglio, who is just hilarious as Johnson’s older and squarer brother. He’s got most of the film’s best lines, and a “serious” scene between him and Johnson might be the biggest laugh I’ve seen a festival crowd give a movie this festival. Other faces like Keegan-Michael Key (as Eddie’s overstressed Gamblers Anonymous sponsor) and Mexican actress Aislinn Derbez (a nurse who Eddie falls in love with) are good enough.

I think a lot of people are going to drunkenly stumble on this movie at the end of a fun night, and they’ll be pleasantly surprised how much this makes them laugh. I think it’s the ultimate end goal of Swanberg’s career: To be able to do what the hell he wants without having to worry about managing the egos of actors that don’t get what he’s doing or the box office receipts. If a partnership with Netflix means that he’ll keep making solid little movies like Win It All, then I’m an open advocate for the streaming shift.

Win It All hits Netflix on April 7.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.

 

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