Sunday, April 10, 2011

Win Win (***1/2)

Directed by Tom McCarthy


When I originally saw the trailer for Win Win, I turned to a friend of mine and asked, "Does that movie look really good? Because I'm at a point in my life where anything that stars Paul Giamatti looks absolutely awesome." So, at least you know where I'm coming from. The film comes equipped with enthusiastic fanfare (not loud, but consistently positive) out of the Sundance Film Festival and is supplied with a terrific cast supporting a very funny, heartwarming screenplay. In case you wanted to just stop reading now, I guess I'll just tell you: I really liked this movie. Now, for anyone who wants to dive in a little deeper, follow me.

I go out of my way to say I really liked this movie because I truly feel that one of this film's strengths is its effortless likability (all my P. Giamatti biases aside). Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a very likable lawyer with a modest practice stationed in New Jersey, and loving family in the suburbs. But his practice is struggling to make ends meet because of financial pressures and certain home improvement burdens (including a faulty boiler in the basement of his office). The stress of it all is giving Mike occasional heart palpitations. It doesn't help matters that the local high school wrestling team - of which he is the head coach - has yet to win a single game.

To help ease his financial burden, he decides to become the guardian for one of his clients, a Dementia-addled curmudgeon named Leo Popler (Burt Young). Without a guardian, Leo would be taken care of by the state government, so Mike decides to become the guardian himself and collect the monthly commission checks that come with it. But Mike knows he will not actually be able to make the effort it takes to be a true guardian for Leo, so he puts Leo in a home. Sure, Leo would rather stay in the house he's lived in for decades, but Mike takes advantage of Leo's compromising situation. After all, Leo is probably better off in a home to begin with and Mike needs the cash. But one complication that arises in the form of a sixteen-year-old named Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo's grandson who's run away from home.

Kyle is eager to free himself of his troubled mother and wants to live with his grandfather, but upon arriving, finds himself living in the basement of Mike's home instead. Mike's wife, Jackie (a particularly inspired Amy Ryan), is concerned about this rough young man's appearance in their lives, but her concern soon turns toward helping Kyle. One day, Kyle decides to join in on one of Mike's wrestling practices and lo and behold, he's actually really good. When it becomes obvious that Kyle will be staying with them for a while, Mike has him enrolled in the high school and become an official member of the team. Overnight, the wrestling team goes from a dreadful also-ran to a scrappy winner and Kyle's greatness is all the reason. This talented young man then manages to work his way into the Flaherty family, but will his rocky past ever come back to haunt him?

This is the third film from Tom McCarthy, after The Station Agent and The Visitor. Both films were gentle and poignant character studies, detailing stories of hermit-like protagonists brought out of their hovels by strangers who end up changing their lives for the better. I felt The Station Agent's gentle soulfulness was exquisite - while I was less enthused about The Visitor. Win Win follows in the traditions of those two films - though Mike Flaherty is not nearly as introverted as the other two protagonists - inhabiting a tone entrapped in the subtle nuances of the human condition. After all, it seems like the human condition is what McCarthy is most fascinated in exploring.

Sure, there are conflicts in Win Win that resolve themselves too easily and there is never any moment where you're ever truly worried that things will end up terribly wrong, but the beauty of this film lies in its ability to work without depending on that kind of stuff. Much like his previous two films, McCarthy takes what could be a sitcom pilot and makes it a refreshing, touching tale littered with sharply defined characters. We are also given a host of highly entertaining supporting characters, including Vig (Jeffrey Tambor), Mike's grumpy business partner and underachieving assistant coach. There's also Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), Kyle's problematic mother who stands as the film's main antagonist. Lastly, we have Terry (Bobby Cannavale), Mike's best friend, who's become so preoccupied with the sexual escapades of his ex-wife that he decides to become another assistant coach just so he can distract himself. You may remember Cannavale also having an effective, equally-funny supporting performance in The Station Agent.

McCarthy has shown a talent for creating a trusting connection with his actors and an ability to squeeze the best out of them. It may seem obvious that Alex Shaffer was likely casted for his wrestling ability and not his acting chops, but he works his way into the role of the internally tormented Kyle in a way that felt effortless. His rumbling, almost monotone delivery and quiet intensity was probably not an intentional character quirk cooked up by Shaffer himself, but it works incredibly well for the character and McCarthy never puts Shaffer in a position in which he can't succeed. That the film's third act is comprised of the hackneyed "final match" plot poing is a bit disappointing, but that it then turns it around and makes it about Kyle himself was a pleasant surprise.

And then there's Giamatti. Usually accustomed to more cantankerous characters (like in American Splendor and, most recently, Barney's Version), he plays Mike with some sweetness, but not without the roughness around the edges. A family man and dedicated father, but he's still very capable of double-crossing his unstable client and stealing a secret smoke behind the convenient store. Giamatti is able to pull off this dual-loaded role with ease, but then again, that's not surprising. Add some fantastic supporting performances from Ryan and Cannavale, Win Win ends up being a rather terrifically acted film as well as formidably written one as well. It's a win win.

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