Synopsis: Tom McCarthy, acclaimed writer/director of THE VISITOR and THE STATION
AGENT, once again explores the depths and nuances of human relationships
in his new film about the allegiances and bonds between unlikely
characters. Disheartened attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who
moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, stumbles across a star
athlete through some questionable business dealings while trying to
support his family. Just as it looks like he will get a double payday,
the boy’s mother shows up fresh from rehab and flat broke, threatening
to derail everything. McCarthy’s deft touch with balancing drama and
comedy, broken hearts and poignant humanity is at play in WIN WIN.
Release Date: March 18, 2011 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Paul Giamatti is a lucky guy. His character Mike Flaherty has a loving wife (Amy Ryan), two cute kids, and a large support system of friends including jogging buddy Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and law firm partner/high school wrestling assistant coach Vig (Jeffrey Tambor). He lives in a normal town in New Jersey, has a law practice that caters to end-of-life issues and caring for the elderly. Business is slow. Win Win‘s recession-era agenda is understated, but obviously a constant reality for Mike and his family. When a wealthy client, played by Burt Young in a wonderful performance, is deemed unfit by the court, Mike decides to become his legal guardian, ostensibly because he likes the old Mr. Poplar (he does), but also because there’s a $1500/month commission check if Mike fudges the specifics and puts him in an elder care facility instead of allowing him to stay in his home.
On paper, it’s a nasty little scheme and makes Mike seem like a thoroughly unlikable guy. But the old man has dementia, the elder care facility is very nice, Mike needs the money, and it’s not technically illegal. Win Win is about the poor decisions decent people sometimes make when placed a difficult situation. Complications ensue when Poplar’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) comes to live with him. Kyle has his own baggage: a drug-addicted and emotionally distant mother in a rehab facility in Ohio. The kid can’t live alone in his grandfather’s house and Mike canât let him know why…so he and his wife Jackie take in Kyle as their own. Kyle is, coincidentally, a world-class wrestler who comes in reinvigorate Mike’s wimpy team of losers and pumps up his own sagging confidence. But you can bet not everything goes according to plan.
Writer/director Tom McCarthy weaves many stories here: an intimate family comedy/drama, a middle-aged buddy comedy, a coming-of-age tale, and a rousing sports movie. It’s a delicate balancing act and it mostly works most of the time, but sometimes the film just gets overstuffed with so much stuff. Characters are spread too thin (Tambor seems especially underused), and the dramatic and emotional confrontations between Alex and his mother (played by Melaine Lynskey) sometimes seem like they belong in a more serious picture.
The main strike against it is that Win Win falls back on the most entrenched and predictable of narrative arcs-the sports movie-to provide some oomph for a protagonist that makes a few mistakes and battles a few hurdles, but doesn’t actually do much. The high school wrestling element of the film makes it unique (as does the fact that Alex Shaffer is a real-life New Jersey wrestling champion and not an actor), but it’s also a transparent attempt to invigorate a film that’s about boring, normal people being boring and normal. The fact that someone like Mike Flaherty would find solace and inspiration in the narrative of an against-the-odds sports story like Kyle’s is exactly truthful to the kind of world he lives in, but it doesn’t change the fact that within the realm of cinema, the mid-life crisis/reinvention via sport arc is a cliche.
It’s hard to fault the film for playing within bounds because plenty of films do so well, and so does Win Win. But the fact that it is such a low-stakes comedy is both its blessing and its cures. McCarthy’s interested in characters becoming acclimated to moderate successes, and an overall, general outlook on a life that’s not bad, but not great. Paul Giamatti’s character ends the film by saying he’s feeling “pretty good.” The film has the same kind of contented vibe. It isn’t the funniest, the most original or memorable comedy, but it is well-acted and sincerely interested in its characters travails, even when they occasionally slip into familiar “types” more than fully-rendered creations. The director excels at giving extremely talented actors meaty material and allowing them to thrive, and it’s the acting that ultimately bumps the film up from well-executed cliche to “pretty good” ensemble comedy.
Among the stellar cast (not a weak comedic link among them), Amy Ryan shines in a few scenes as Mike’s wife Jackie. The role is too small for someone of Ryan’s talents, but she brings such a rich background to a seemingly average suburban mom (a tough Jersey girl attitude–her first reaction to Kyle’s drug-addicted, absentee mother is to “go to Ohio and beat the crap out of his mom”), it seems a shame to keep her in a supportive role only. I found myself wanting more of Jackie and less of Mike’s other supportive figures.
The biggest and broadest comedy in the movie comes from Bobby Cannavale as Terry. Like Mike, Terry is experiencing something of a mid-life crisis (stemming from divorce). It’s hilarious and a little disturbing the gusto with which Terry throws himself into the world of high school sports. No grown man should be so excited to watch teenage boys wrestle. The way in which Terry masks his obvious desire to recapture his young with cocky machismo is a funny idea, but the joke plays out too long and becomes one-note. At times, Win Win relies too much on Cannavale’s gleefully goofy performance as a counterbalance to Giamatti’s underplaying as “the normal guy,” sans the characteristic Paul Giamatti neurosis. The balance is sometimes there, but just as often it slips and makes for a comically mismatched tone.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Thomas McCarthyMary Jane Skalski
- Producer(s): Tom McCarthy
- Screenwriter(s): Melanie Lynskey (Cindy Timmons)Paul Giamatti (Mike Flaherty)Amy Ryan (Jackie Flaherty)
- Story: Jeffrey Tambor (Vigman)
- Cast: Margo Martindale (Shelley)Bobby Cannavale (Terry Delfino)Burt Young (Leo Poplar) Alex Shaffer (Kyle Timmons)Tom McArdleOliver BokelbergJohn Paino
- Cinematographer: Lyle Workman
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score:
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA