Win Win

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/24/11 23:00:00

"And The Award For Most Accurate Title Goes To. . ."
5 stars (Awesome)

At the end of every year when the Ten Best lists and various awards group winners are announced, there is almost inevitably a couple of titles that pop up all over the place that leave the average moviegoer scratching their head in confusion because they have never heard of those particular movies. These are the ones that come out earlier in the year without much promotional muscle behind them other than those rave reviews and as a result, they usually get shunted to the side in the rush to catch whatever the big new multiplex behemoth is that particular weekend. This year, I am guessing that the new comedy-drama “Win Win” is going to be one of those movies for two reasons. For one, the combination of a plot that cannot simply be explained in a single sentence or catchphrase and a cast consisting of fine actors possessing absolutely no box-office muscle between them suggests that it will get lost in the shuffle while people rush out to catch the more familiar and heavily promoted likes of “Sucker Punch” or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2.” For another, it really is an excellent movie on all levels and while it is too early in the year to state that it will go down as one of the finest films of 2011, I would be mighty surprised if it wasn’t up there come December.

Paul Giamatti stars (see what I mean about the lack of box-office muscle?) as Mike Flaherty, a down-on-his-luck lawyer who moonlights as a down-on-his-luck high school wrestling coach for a team that hasn’t won a match in years. Mike is beset with serious money problems that he is trying to keep secret from his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and it looks as though his prayers may be answered when he agrees to act as the guardian for Leo (Burt Young), a wealthy old client who is entering the first stages of dementia and whose only known blood relative, an estranged daughter, cannot be found. All he has to do is put Leo in a nearby retirement community, check on him once in a great while and pocket the $1500-a-month fee for his guardianship. This plan seems foolproof but hits a snag almost immediately when teenager Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up on his doorstop claiming to be Leo’s grandson. In order to keep his scam going, Mike is forced to take Kyle in when his druggie mom (Melanie Lynskey) cannot be found. Amazingly, this too has a silver lining when it turns out that Kyle is a champion wrestler--Mike enrolls him in school, puts him on the team and finally begins racking up wins. I wouldn’t dream of telling you if Mike is able to keep his various lies and scams going long enough to make extra money and win a championship tournament without everything falling apart but I suspect that the knowledge that he is a character being played by Paul Giamatti should be enough of a hint for most of you.

“Win Win” was written by Tom McCarthy and like his previous films, “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” it involves a group of disparate outsiders who wind up forming a makeshift family unit against all odds and often against their own wishes. Unlike those earlier efforts, where the central characters--the depressed midget played by Peter Dinklage in “The Station Agent” and the depressed widower played by Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor”--were fundamentally decent people who deserved whatever small measure of happiness that they were able to derive, the central character here is someone who does horrible and deeply self-centered things and while his reasons may be understandable, it doesn’t change the fact that many of his acts are borderline unconscionable. The trick is to somehow write it in a way that allows viewers to empathize with Mike without conjuring up some half-assed twist that allows him to get away with his sleaziness without having to pay any price for it. Not only does McCarthy pull off that narrative high-wire act, he does it while still managing to keep things from bogging down into a cynical bummer. In the hands of someone like Alexander Payne, this material could have been transformed into something dark and bleak and while that might have been interesting, it is the kind of approach that one might expect. By keeping things on the lighter side for the most part, McCarthy makes his story accessible without dumbing it down and when the more dramatic moments do crop up, he handles the tonal shift in such a way that everything flows together beautifully.

In addition, McCarthy has written a screenplay in which all the characters, even the smaller supporting parts, that are fully fleshed out and full of life and he has been lucky enough to snare a cast of actors who are able to bring them to life beautifully. Over the last few years, Paul Giamatti has played the failed schlub character so many times in so many films that casting him in the role of Mike almost seems a little too obvious. That said, he is doing anything but coasting here and the way that he manages to find a balance between his character’s loathsome and sympathetic qualities is quietly astonishing--although it may not seem as much of a challenge as his celebrated turns in “American Splendor” or “Sideways” on the surface, I would almost argue that this role is actually more complex and challenging and he pulls it off so beautifully that it may be the best work in a career filled with great performances. As his wife, Amy Ryan takes a part that could have just been a one-dimensional character and brings it to an unexpectedly winning life as well and she is given a bunch of quieter character-developing moments that are utterly disarming and charming--my favorite being the one where she finally begins to warm to Kyle and explains the meaning behind her “JBJ” tattoo. As Mike’s friends/coaching assistants, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale set up a wonderful comedic rhythm between them that allows them to pretty much steal every scene in which they appear. The biggest acting surprise comes from the performance by newcomer Alex Shaffer as Kyle. An actual high school kid and wrestler making his acting debut, Shaffer manages to find unexpected shadings to his character and more than holds his own in his scenes with such celebrated veterans as Giamatti and Ryan. I don’t know if he plans to continue acting or if this was just a one-off lark but based on his performance here, I would say that he has more to offer than most of the male pretty boys clogging the multiplex screens these days.

“Win Win” is a wonderful movie and unless 2011 turns out to be a transcendent year for the art of cinema, I predict that it will appear on many a 10 Best list. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone will go out and see it now or that it will even play in theaters outside of he big cities. Then again, we are living in a time when something as audacious as “Black Swan” can gross $100 million from audiences craving something unique and interesting and while “Win Win” may not be as artistically flamboyant as that film but it is just as much of a distinctive and fascinating work from a unique filmmaker on the rise as it was. If you have a chance to see it, by all means take it--unlike its sad sack hero, you will not be disappointed.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.