Film Review: Win Win

Low-key but disarming comedy-drama stars Paul Giamatti as a beleaguered small-town lawyer and wrestling coach.

With his third feature as writer-director, Win Win, actor Tom McCarthy reaffirms what we already knew from The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007)—that’s he’s one of the more appealing and humane talents working in independent film today. His low-key comedy-dramas deal with flawed but decent people in real and recognizable situations, and Win Win may be his most commercially potent slice-of-life to date.

Anti-matinee idol Paul Giamatti plays yet another beleaguered Everyman, but the familiarity of his persona here is elevated by the sharp material McCarthy and co-writer Joe Tiboni have provided him. Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty is an attorney in suburban New Providence, New Jersey, whose practice is so anemic he can’t afford to fix the clanging boiler in his office building or pay someone to cut down the rotting tree in his home front yard. His vocation as a high-school wrestling coach doesn’t offer much gratification, since his team is a hapless bunch of misfits with an embarrassing record of losses.

Mike struggles to get by and keep his money woes from his level-headed wife Jackie (Amy Ryan). Then, one in day in court, Mike sees a way out of his financial hole: He volunteers to become legal guardian of his mentally declining, elderly client Leo (Burt Young), whose daughter is nowhere to be found. The gig comes with a $1,500 monthly stipend, which would be well and good had Mike honored his vow to keep Leo in his house rather than moving him to the local nursing home.

Mike’s plan goes askew when Leo’s 16-year-old, bleached-blond, runaway grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) appears on his relative’s doorstep. Mike and a wary Jackie open their home to the troubled, withdrawn kid, whose life with a drug-addict mother has been anything but nurturing. Unexpectedly, Kyle’s presence proves to be a “win-win” for Mike when he discovers that the boy used to be a champion wrestler. For Kyle, the Flahertys’ acceptance is his first real experience of a loving, stable home environment. Then his mom turns up.
As in his previous films, McCarthy constructs unlikely but persuasive bonds between disparate people, then throws heartbreaking obstacles in their path. The drama of his storylines sneaks up on you, soon after you’ve become inordinately fond of his characters. It’s a very successful narrative stratagem.

Giamatti earns ample sympathy as a generally decent man whose ethical lapse exacts a steep price, and Ryan (“The Office,” Gone Baby Gone) is a pure delight as his warm but slightly astringent wife. Bobby Cannavale is great fun as Mike’s best friend Terry, a hedge-fund manager obsessed with his ex-wife’s new life who finds a new calling as an overeager wrestling coach, while Jeffrey Tambor lends his sad-sack comic timing as Mike’s veteran wrestling cohort. Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!) ably negotiates one of the film’s more challenging roles, as Kyle’s selfish but nonetheless poignant mother. And young Shaffer, a high-school wrestling star making his acting debut, is astutely cast, his raw vulnerability lending a credible edge to the volatile Kyle.

The title of Tom McCarthy’s latest may be meant sardonically, but this well-written, deftly performed movie is truly a win-win for audiences.