One of the great joys of the movie may be watching Paul Giamatti frown, and the warm new comedy Win Win gives us plenty of opportunities to see it. The movie gives us some wonderful, interesting characters, and shows us how generally decent people can make mistakes when the pressure is on.
Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small-town, small-time lawyer in New Jersey whose comfortable, middle-class existence with his wife, Jackie (the wonderful Amy Ryan), and two young daughters has hit a rough patch lately. Mike is having financial trouble. He doesn’t have enough money to replace the broken boiler in his practice’s basement or to cut down the dead tree in his front yard. A few more bad months like he’s been having, and Mike may lose his practice completely.
Money woes aren’t Mike’s only problems. Other petty indignities pile up as well. He also works (possibly for the money) as a high-school wrestling coach, along with his friend, a CPA named Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor). The wrestling team, of course, hasn’t won a single match this season. When their coaches are as hangdog a bunch as Giamatti and Tambor, that’s not particularly surprising.
Mike has a client named Leo Poplar (the great Burt Young, Paulie from Rocky), who has dementia but doesn’t want to leave his home, and is declared mentally incompetent by the state. Needing money, and unable to find Leo’s daughter, Mike has himself declared Leo’s guardian. Instead of taking care of Leo in his home as he said he would, Mike puts him in a nursing home and pockets the monthly check for being his guardian. It’s dishonorable but understandable, as Mike needs to provide for his family and the nursing home takes good care of Leo. Mike convinces himself it’s the win-win solution of the movie’s title.
Complications arise when Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up from Ohio, fleeing from a bad living situation with his drug-addicted mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), and her abusive boyfriend. Mike and his family end up taking in Kyle, who is very sullen and cryptic at first, but soon warms up somewhat. And, wouldn’t you know it, he turns out to be a fantastic wrestler.
The movie is the third feature directed by Tom McCarthy, who previously made The Station Agent, which starred Peter Dinklage as a train-obsessed dwarf whose lonely life is invaded by two strangers, and The Visitor, in which Richard Jenkins is a widower professor who finds that his New York apartment is home to two squatting illegal immigrants. All of his films seem to feature damaged people who form impromptu families when strangers enter their lives.
Win Win is the most traditional of McCarthy’s films, with its courtroom and sports movie trappings, but while the plot elements can feel a little familiar, the characters never do. McCarthy has a knack for writing characters that feel familiar and realistic but still have the ability to surprise us. They’re realistically flawed but still essentially good, and the movie allows them to make mistakes without losing our sympathy. McCarthy creates characters that we enjoy spending time with, and while he gives them plot paces that they must be put through, he doesn’t rush them through, allowing them time to interact without pressure, and us time to enjoy them.
Take, for example, Mike’s best friend, Terry, played wonderfully by Station Agent veteran Bobby Cannavale. He doesn’t have much to do with the movie’s plot, and mostly hangs around the edges of the movie being wacky, but McCarthy’s script also suggests other, deeper problems that Terry has that fuel a lot of his behavior.
Ryan’s character, Jackie, is the film’s trickiest role, and she could have been merely a scold, but McCarthy and Ryan make her into the film’s moral center while never being hectoring. When she says she wants to go to Ohio and beat up Kyle’s mom, she means it.
Lynskey’s Cindy is really the film’s only disappointingly one-dimensional character. There could have been some interesting material there about how her father treated her badly when she was a kid, yet her son only sees him as a funny old man. However, the movie basically uses her to drive the plot and say the worst possible thing at any time.
Of course, the movie has a terrific cast to play these characters. Giamatti is a champ at these sorts of roles—hangdog men who are bowed by the various woes and grievances life throws at them. He plays these put-upon characters very well but always manages to find their various shades, and here he gives Mike the humor and humanity he needs.
Shaffer does a very good job portraying a very realistic teenager, constructing a character mostly out of shrugs and noncommittal, monosyllabic lines. The actor and script suggest a lot about Kyle while explaining very little.
Win Win may suffer from the familiar feel of some of its story elements, but it is a warm, funny film that surprises us through the depths of its characters and how they interact with each other, rather than the plot.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.