HBO's 'Winning Time' Is a Glitzy Showcase for John C. Reilly's Subtle Gifts
Brought in as a last-minute replacement, the charming actor anchors the ambitious docu-drama with his low-key charm.
If you were assessing veteran characters actors like basketball players in a draft, John C. Reilly would scan as an undervalued asset. From a purely objective perspective, he's got an impressive stat sheet: an Oscar nomination for Chicago in 2002, the same year he also appeared in Best Picture nominees Gangs of New York and The Hours; '00s dorm-room immortality with comedies like Talladega Nights, Walk Hard, and Step Brothers; scene-stealing parts in blockbusters like Kong: Skull Island; a side-career as a collaborator and muse for cult comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim; and beloved turns in the films of his longtime friend Paul Thomas Anderson, who recently cast him as Herman Munster with one whole line in Licorice Pizza. Unquestionably, he's put in the work.
Still, in the last decade, Reilly hasn't had a big mainstream showcase quite like Winning Time, the new HBO series about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the NBA-conquering Showtime Lakers, which opens with Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis in 1991 before soaring back to where it all began in 1979. Within the context of the sprawling series, Reilly, tasked with playing team owner Jerry Buss, serves as the "glue guy"—in basketball-speak, the guy who brings the whole team together. In Winning Time, Reilly accomplishes a similar feat with the large cast of stars (Sally Field, Jason Segel, Adrien Brody) and new faces (Quincy Isaiah as Johnson, Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) establishing the show's sun-baked, freewheeling tone through sheer charisma and dogged commitment. With his shirt unbuttoned and a lunchtime drink in his hand, he makes it all look easy.
Given how naturally Reilly fits into the SoCal milieu, a Boogie Nights-like world of sex, drugs, and jump shots, it's surprising how close he came to not being in the show at all. As reported in The Hollywood Reporter, actor Michael Shannon was first cast in the central Buss role, but left the project about a week before it was scheduled to shoot. According to Adam McKay, who directed the pilot and serves as an executive producer on the series, Shannon was "really bugged" that his character had to consistently break the fourth-wall, a stylistic tick carried over from McKay's recent issue-driven explainer-y features like The Big Short and Vice. McKay's longtime creative partner Will Ferrell reportedly wanted the role, but McKay offered it to Reilly, Ferrell's Step Brothers co-star, effectively ending one of the great comedy partnerships of the last 30 years.
Admittedly, that's a lot of offscreen baggage for an actor to overcome. In interviews, Reilly has been careful in discussing the messy fallout of the McKay-Ferrell situation. ("Will is one of my best friends, Adam is one of my best friends, I was delighted to get the job and that’s all I really have to say,” he told the Reporter.) Similarly, the show surrounding him, which McKay shoots and edits with all the frenzy of a '90s Oliver Stone movie, can be smothering in its need to be liked and understood. Showrunner Max Borenstein toggles between Mad Men-esque interoffice politics with Buss and coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke), domestic melodrama with the players, and larger cultural shifts in the league and the city around them. To use another belabored basketball metaphor, the fundamentals feel shaky.
Particularly in its depiction of the rampant chauvinism of the era—Reilly's version of Buss is introduced sleeping next to a topless woman in the Playboy Mansion—the writing is occasionally toothless. With Anchorman, McKay effortlessly deconstructed and lampooned the male buffoonery of the '70s, and Reilly is no stranger to playing scoundrels. In its first few episodes, Winning Time is a bit too enamored with the trappings of the world these men move through. At the same time, there's an ambivalence to the way Reilly inhabits Buss, a sadness beneath the swagger, that makes you think a more challenging, biting show could emerge down the line. Even as a rich pro sports team owner, he's an underdog you want to root for.