Let’s not beat around the bush here: Win Win boasts superior performances from an already excellent cast, but writer/director Thomas McCarthy (whose last film, The Visitor, was a fantastic film and acting showcase) doesn’t have a particularly exciting story to work with. That’s fine, as Win Win isn’t “that” kind of movie. It’s about interesting characters with believable problems just trying to make their lives work. But interestingly enough for a movie with a sports storyline, in this case high school wrestling, it never rouses, never stirs, and never fully gives in to melodrama. That’s not the point of Win Win. It’s just too bad nobody told the folks who cut the trailer what McCarthy’s movie is really about, because it gives the inaccurate impression Win Win is “The Feel Good Movie of the Something-or-Other.”
Paul Giamatti has perfected his hopeful sad sack persona and brings that excellence to his role as Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with financial woes and a large family, who makes the complicated and essentially corrupt decision to become an old man’s legal guardian in exchange for the $1500 monthly stipend. Good intentions, perhaps, but despite promising to keep Mr. Poplar (Rocky’s Burt Young) in his own house, as Mr. Poplar wishes, he plops him down in an old folks home anyway. McCarthy’s screenplay, from a story by McCarthy and Joe Tiboni, works overtime to make Mike into a sympathetic individual despite this lapse in judgment, and McCarthy is a talented enough director to make the balance work. We never hate Mike for his unethical decision. He’s just a good man in a complicated world who makes a bad choice.
The world doesn’t quite blow up in Mike’s face for this, but he’s soon forced to deal with Mr. Poplar’s grandson Kyle, played by newcomer Alex Shaffer. Kyle has run away from home to live with his grandfather, and Mike feels responsible for his welfare. Kyle becomes a regular houseguest, and despite a youthful malaise and a tendency to smoke he’s a pretty good kid, who like Mike is dealing with problems that he’s powerless to stop but decent enough to try to keep to himself. Shaffer’s role is one that a lesser actor could have riddled with trite teenaged angst, and to his credit – and certainly McCarthy’s – the newcomer keeps pace with such lauded co-stars as Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Melanie Lynskey. Even his approach to wrestling, a pastime at which he is a genuine prodigy, is Zen. Ironically he’s a superior combatant when his home life approaches contentment, and only fails to channel his pubescent rage healthily when he actually has some.
It would have been easy for McCarthy to give in to standard sports clichés – which admittedly really do work – and turn Win Win into something conventional, but he’s after something much subtler than that. Each member of his cast turns in funny, honest performances, and their interplay is similarly complicated. Kyle’s integration into Mike’s social dynamic yields interesting results, from the vicarious youthful zeal experienced by embittered divorcé Terry (Cold Case’s Bobby Cannavale), to Amy Ryan’s initial distrust and gradually evolving maternal connection to the lad.
Win Win wraps up its storyline in perhaps too neat a little bow, but until then it’s a pleasing acting showcase that doesn’t quite meet the level of McCarthy’s previous films, but earns its place as an understated feather in his cap. It arrives on Blu-Ray this week with a colorful transfer that warrants no complaints but no particular accolades, and a tasteful smattering of special features including some wisely deleted scenes, a couple of interviews and a music video for “Think You Can Wait” by The National, for all the people who couldn’t figure out how to find it on YouTube. It’s a decent but unambitious presentation for an ambitious, but mostly decent film.
CRAVEONLINE RATING (FILM): 8/10
CRAVEONLINE RATING (BLU-RAY): 7/10