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 V.20 No.14 | April 7 - 13, 2011 

Film Review

Win Win

Seriocomic snapshot of troubled families avoids cliché, embraces closure

Win Win (2011)

Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale

Who farted in church?
Who farted in church?
There is, in certain respects, a comforting familiarity to Win Win. In a nutshell, it tells the inspirational story of a middle-class family that adopts a troubled young high schooler who proves to be preternaturally adept at sports. If you think that sounds an awful lot like the synopsis for Sandra Bullock’s Academy Award-winning vehicle The Blind Side, you are correct, sir. Despite structural similarities, though, Win Win quickly strikes out on its own path, becoming something unexpectedly great in the process.

Hardworking character actor Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a nickel-and-dime lawyer in small-town New Jersey who makes his living dealing with wills and estates for a decreasing roster of elderly clients. He’s comfortably married, has two lovely young daughters and spends his spare time coaching the local high school wrestling team. When a series of bills comes a bit too fast and furious, Mike makes a questionable moral decision. He signs on as the legal guardian of his client Leo (Burt Young), an Alzheimer’s-afflicted senior whose family has seemingly abandoned him. Though it sounds like a nice thing to do, Mike does it mostly to get hold of a monthly guardianship check from Leo’s estate.

Things get complicated when Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up out of the blue. The troubled kid has clearly run away from his drug-addicted mother—Leo’s long-estranged daughter—and is looking for somewhere to hide. Mike and his wife (the always-welcome Amy Ryan) try to send Kyle back home, but he refuses. With no other recourse, the Flahertys take Kyle in and enroll him in the local school. Rather conveniently, it turns out Kyle used to be a wrestler. The kid proves to be a real talent and before long is driving Mike’s ragtag wrestling team toward a state victory.

While it sounds like your standard-issue inspirational sports drama, Win Win isn’t really. Longtime actor-turned-writer/director/producer Thomas McCarthy is known for helming character-driven independent films (2003’s The Station Agent, 2007’s The Visitor). Here, he turns in a perfectly mainstream film that refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator and genuinely earns its emotions. There’s no false tear-jerking here, no “who can scream louder?” drama, no climactic stand-up-and-cheer moment. This isn’t the sort of film that hinges on whether someone wins a big game. In fact, sports is a very small part of the film’s overall design. It’s mostly about the complicated interactions of this particular set of characters. (Kyle’s mom, played by Melanie Lynskey of Up In The Air and Heavenly Creatures, eventually shows up to throw her crazy mama drama into the mix as well.)

“Sweep the leg, Johnny.”
“Sweep the leg, Johnny.”
Shaffer, an actual high school wrestler with no previous acting experience, is the film’s centerpiece. He’s a major find. Quiet and sullen at first, we’re not sure what to make of Kyle. In time, we figure out he’s a good kid—as bored and uncommunicative as any teenager, but fundamentally undamaged by his rocky family relationships. As viewers, we genuinely want something good to come of his situation. Win Win is quick to acknowledge the flaws in people, but it believes that we’re all fundamentally striving to do the right thing. As a result, the central conflict of the film revolves around whether Mike will cop to his somewhat mercenary relationship with Leo, and what will become of this increasingly messy domestic situation.

Although it’s got an assortment of serious moments, Win Win is also a solid comedy with plenty of big laughs. This is dramedy at its most even-keeled. McCarthy is an observational filmmaker and he’s adept at creating plausible situations, fleshed-out characters and realistic dialogue. No silly slapstick here. No artificial sentiment either. Just a good eye for humor and a good ear for drama. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this would be just another sappy sitcom. But McCarthy has the skills to impart depth, weight and a certain gritty texture to it all. Much credit goes to his fine cast of actors, few of whom are marquee names, but all of whom (first-timers included) are reliable talents. Win Win is no game changer. You’ve seen its kind before and you know, more or less, where it’s headed. Nonetheless, its modest, sweet-natured, seriocomic portrait of families—actual, accidental and adopted—is a victory for all involved.


Win Win

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a down-on-his-luck estate lawyer in New Jersey. He and his wife (Amy Ryan) unofficially adopt a teenage boy (newcomer Alex Shaffer) after the kid runs away from home looking for his long lost grandfather, one of Mike's clients. Turns out the kid is a wrestling phenom, which proves to be quite a boon to the high school wrestling team Mike coaches. Writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) sidesteps all the clichés inherent in the inspirational sports drama--crafting, instead, a warm, sharp, very funny look at human beings and the often dumb things they do to get through this thing called life. 106 minutes R.

 

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