Win Win

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win."

Awhile back I wrote a post about four directors who have never made a bad film. Thomas McCarthy should be added to that list.

McCarthy has made three incredible films over the last eight years – The Station Agent, The Visitor, and now, Win Win. All of his movies deal with highly developed characters in believable situations – i.e. don’t expect explosions, gunfights, or special effects. This is movie-making of the purest sort.

Win Win tells the story of Mike Flaherty, a struggling attorney who moonlights as a struggling high-school wrestling coach. His team can’t win, he’s having money problems (he can’t afford to fix the toilet in his own office – he gets down on his hands and knees to tinker with it between appointments), and he sometimes has panic attacks. Mike reminded me of Walter White from Breaking Bad. Both of these characters are having money (and health) problems, and even though they are normally law-abiding and upstanding citizens, they make an immoral choice to maintain the veneer that everything is alright. It’s a slight indictment of a society where moral and naturally good individuals aren’t rewarded for their behavior; they’re punished for it.

To pay the bills on time, Mike becomes the guardian of Leo (Burt Young), an elderly client with early-stage dementia, for the $1500 a month payday. He assumes guardianship by promising to respect Leo’s wish to remain in his own home, but when the Judge signs off on the arrangement, Mike hands Leo off to a retirement home so he collect the paycheck worry-free. Mike knows he’s done a terrible thing, and there’s a couple of great scenes of him grabbing a pack of cigarettes and smoking by the dumpster behind a convenience store. They’re some of the strongest scenes of the film because of the abject hopelessness of the situation. Mike knows what he’s doing isn’t right and hates himself for it, but at the same time he can’t admit to his wife and family that his practice is failing and that he can’t support them. It’s a lose-lose.

Enter Leo’s estranged grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer, who plays the disaffected teenager perfectly). Kyle’s mother is a drug addict in rehab and he’s left her to live with his grandfather. With Leo in a retirement home, the Flaherty family takes him in to live with them, at least for a little while until they can get a hold of his mother. At first, things with Kyle are a little uncomfortable. He’s sixteen and he smokes, much to the chagrin of Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). He likes taking runs at five in the morning and he has a penchant for running afoul of the law. But he’s also a talented wrestler, and that’s when Mike really takes a liking towards him. With Kyle wrestling, the team may actually win a few tournaments. A Mike deserves a win, no matter how small.

Win Win is McCarthy’s most accessible film. His previous efforts were slower paced, but excellent, character studies of a dwarf (The Station Agent) and an aging professor who befriends two illegal immigrants (The Visitor). Both of those films were often serious in tone, with few jokes peppered in between the drama. It heightened the poignancy of the pieces but restricted their mainstream appeal. Win Win is a bit lighter – with two comic relief characters in the form of Mike’s two best friends Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and Terry (Bobby Cannavale). While they do elicit genuine laughs from the audience, I felt the jokes came at the story’s expense. Vigman and Terry seem to inhabit a different film than Mike and his family. It’s like they’ve been pulled straight from a cartoon (or an Arrested Development episode) and their presence sometimes detracted from the believability of the story. When Terry pulls down his pants and asks Mike to take a picture of his ass it seems sophomoric and totally out of place. Despite my irritation with these two cartoonish characters, they didn’t irrevocably tarnish the film. There were just a few scenes I wished stayed on the cutting-room floor.

Win Win is a surefire bet at the cinema. It’s a charming slice of suburban American life and the accompanying angst found behind white picket fences. It also manages to simultaneously be a sports film about wrestling, a family drama, and a character study. You can’t lose with this one.

B+

NOTE: While I enjoyed Win Win, I would argue that it’s the weakest of McCarthy’s three films (which is still better than 85% of anything in theatres right now). My favorite of his is still The Station Agent with Peter Dinklage in the title role.

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