Win Win is a complex, satisfying new comedy-drama from the multi-talented Thomas McCarthy, director of The Station Agent and The Visitor, writer of Up, and star of The Wire (he played the deplorable journalist Scott Templeton in the landmark show’s fifth and final season).
In Win Win, Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a stressed-out suburban attorney struggling with a failing practice in the midst of our recent economic depression; not only are clients drying up, but his office is falling to bits. In his spare time, he coaches the local high school’s wrestling team, but – quelle surprise – they are failing as well. One day, out of desperation, Mike takes the morally dubious decision to become the legal guardian of a wealthy yet ailing client Leo (played by Rocky’s Burt Young), guaranteeing him an extra $1500 per month carers fee. The issue is, to take Leo on, he must uproot the old man from the house which he wants to stay living in and transplant him into a care home.
McCarthy needed an actor who could pull off such a queasy act without earning the automatic revulsion of the audience, and nobody is better qualified than the wonderful Paul Giamatti. With his baggy eyes, sadsack demeanour and shambolic gait, Giamatti simply engenders sympathy. I have been a huge fan since the first time I saw him in 2003’s American Splendor, and he is on top form here, fully convincing as a fundamentally good man driven to extreme measures, but simultaneously able to convince himself that what he’s doing isn’t so bad.
Flaherty’s plan seems to be working OK until one day, without warning, Leo’s scruffy, cigarette-smoking 16-year-old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer – looking disconcertingly like a young Fernando Torres) shows up looking for his Grandfather, having run away from his “druggy” mother. Flaherty takes Kyle in, soon to discover that he is the answer to his wrestling team’s problems. The exact details of Kyle’s backstory are cleverly withheld for a long time, thus creating a satisfying aura of suspense around his character. His black eye remains unexplained, and his behaviour jars with what we expect of him. He is polite in conversation and rigidly disciplined about his fitness regime. His youthful dedication and professionalism serve as an inspiration to Flaherty, who struggles on a daily basis to withhold his deception, while his life seems to be improving.
With a plot largely free of major twists and turns, Win Win is all about the characters, and each one is shaded beautifully, McCarthy coaxing fine performances from each and every member of his cast. Another Wire alumnus, Amy Ryan (as Giamatti’s Jon Bon Jovi-loving Jersey wife Jackie) is superb; tough, sensitive and very likeable. Bobby Cannavale is a revelation as Mike’s recently divorced best friend Terry, a hyperactive, lovable manchild with ever-so-slightly homoerotic tendencies. In a less crucial supporting role, Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor is, as ever, amusingly bone-dry as Mike’s wrestling colleague.
Win Win is a movie for modern times, an ultimately cheering melange of Arthur Miller and Robert Altman. With an undercurrent of such desperation and sadness, McCarthy wisely layers the film with a light, positive sheen. The sleepy suburban milieu is calming, bromances abound, and the characters all feel real. Win Win certainly has the courage of its convictions, too. Just when you’re shaking your fist at the screen, worried that McCarthy, in the final moments, has succumbed to the temptation to tap out with a feelgood deus-ex-machina sweetener, he pulls the rug with a perfectly judged final shot that echoes Kyle’s wrestling mantra for success: “WHATEVER THE FUCK IT TAKES”.