This appealing and very enjoyable film from director Tom McCarthy is far more commercial and mainstream than his previous films The Station Agent and the art house hit The Visitor for which veteran character actor Richard Jenkins received a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
Win Win stars Paul Giamatti in another variation of his familiar character, the flawed, lovable loser, genial misfit, and occasional scumbag headed for a fall before he ultimately gains redemption of sorts by the end. Here Giamatti plays Michael Flaherty, a small town lawyer who is struggling to keep his practice solvent and provide for his family. He also moonlights as the coach for the local high school wrestling team, which is also struggling.
But salvation comes in unexpected fashion. One of Flaherty’s elderly clients is judged mentally incompetent to manage his own affairs, and he takes on the role of guardian. Pocketing the monthly $1500 commission, Flaherty promptly shoves Lou (Burt Young, from the Oscar winning Rocky, etc) into a nursing home. He hopes that no one will find out about his little deception.
But then Lou’s estranged and taciturn grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) comes for a visit. Fortunately Kyle is also estranged from his drug addict mother, and just happens to be a champion wrestler. Flaherty takes him into his family home, and also manages to get him onto the school wrestling team, which suddenly changes their fortunes. Flaherty and Kyle bond in unexpected ways, and their sometimes prickly relationship forms the heart of the film. How long will it be before Flaherty’s questionable business dealings are exposed and his flimsy house of cards collapses around him?
Not only does the sport of wrestling play a major part in the film, but Flaherty also spends some time wrestling with his conscience. McCarthy handles the material with a deft and light comic touch, and he essentially plays the relationships and family dynamics for laughs. He also suffuses the material with a sweet nature and human spirit, and a contrived happy ending that ultimately undercuts the usual quirky edge he brought to his previous films.
McCarthy co-wrote the movie with his childhood buddy/wrestling teammate Joe Tiboni, who is also a lawyer, which adds a deeply personal touch to the material. Win Win shares a number of similarities with McCarthy’s two previous films in which the central character’s life was changed by encounters with strangers. And again, McCarthy manages to find laughs amidst the murky moral dilemmas he explores here.
McCarthy teases good performances from his cast. As usual Giamatti is excellent with another edgy characterisation, and he shines here, although he tempers his usually intense performance with a nicely sympathetic edge. In his first film role newcomer Shaffer, who was actually a New Jersey state high school wrestling champion in 2010, has a wonderfully natural and engaging presence as the monosyllabic and introspective character and his performance suggests he may well go on to bigger and better things. Melanie Lynskey is also good as Cindy, Kyle’s mother, a greedy and shallow person who emerges from rehab to confront Flaherty and force him to acknowledge his own character flaws. Flaherty is a good man who is driven by circumstances to make a couple of bad decisions. Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, etc) does what she can with her role as Flaherty’s loyal and no-nonsense wife Jackie. Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale provide most of the comic relief as Flaherty’s assistant coaches.
This entertaining, character driven blend of comedy and moral drama has a lot of heart, and is a win win for audiences lucky enough to catch it in the cinema.