Tom McCarthy is no indie cinema flash-in-the-pan. The Station Agent could have easily been a movie remembered, but a filmmaker not. That unique piece drew a lot of attention but low-budget dramadies often do before their creative talent vanishes into obscurity. Who knows the name Peter Hedges, for example? Pieces of April was a hit too, but his only contribution since: the tepid Dan in Real Life.
But with McCarthy, a career was born for his first lead, Peter Dinklage, soon to be featured in HBO’s Game of Thrones. His follow up, The Visitor, almost scored the unrecognized character actor Richard Jenkins his first Academy Award for Best Actor. Naturally, we’re all wondering about the fate of McCarthy’s third go-around, so I’m here to tell you. The “breakout performance” doesn’t impress here as it should, but even as the actor/writer/director’s lightest exercise in crowd pleasing, Win Win is an all-around successful rated-R family film.
Yeah, rated-R but don’t let that fool you. Reportedly the MPAA objected to one swear word too many even though the film itself has the edge of an apple. I find fault in that but we’ll get into it later. What you really need to know is that Win Win is worth your time.
The picture begins with a fallen angel, stained glass ornamental but it sets up with symbolism. What follows will hit home for a hefty portion of its audience. Sensitivity troubled by the harshness of life, morality bending through rough economic conditions. This is a story about wrestling, and wrestling with angels. We have a pretty good idea of what we like about these characters, but they aren’t nearly as sold on themselves.
Certainly not Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), an elder law attorney with a broken water boiler in his office. Mike seems to have the perfect life in a caring wife and two beautiful daughters. It’s a shame he can’t afford any of that. Now suffering panic attacks, the squirrely little guy just can’t deal. He’s kind, clever, caring, but no Superman. His qualities are rare in the modern world precisely because they won’t put food on the table. This is what Tom McCarthy brings us. As a college kid leaving the cinema put it: “It just felt real.”
Mike Flaherty has a choice: Let his dementia suffering client Leo Poplar (Burt Young, best known for Rocky) be moved into an elder care facility, or fib to the court for a $1,500 a month guardianship stipend and have Mr. Poplar moved to the same place anyway. Mike takes the money and why not? He might be lying about his ability to keep Mr. Polplar living at home but the old man’s destination doesn’t change because of Mike. It’s a win win, though curiously he doesn’t try to defend it once he’s found out.
Complications arise when Leo’s grandson shows up at the doorstep looking for a haven from his monstrously selfish mother and her physically abusive boyfriend. The nastiness is kept off camera; it’s not that kind of film. Mike does the right thing. He takes the boy in, enrolls him in school, and signs him up for the small town failure of a wrestling team he coaches. Surprise, surprise, the kid is a former ace athlete, but also an emotionally damaged one and that could lead to trouble.
The pale-skinned newcomer in the role of the wayward youngster himself is a High School star wrestler in real life. In the film, it both shows in his tremendous skill within the circle and with his noticeable lack of acting talent in every close up. Less a character and more a plot device, young Kyle is the stereotypical little troublemaker who shakes things up for the Flaherty family in a positive way.
Aside from that one exception, every actor is on point here. Most of the film takes place in a house or hallway but somehow there’s never a dull moment. Maybe a few of the unnecessary ones harm the pace, but I’m not complaining. So Paul Giamatti trades a bit of screwball comedy with Jeffrey Tambor, that’s more than fine by me. Serving little purpose, it’s still the kind of delightful dual of dopey men that you’d only expect to see in a live performance on its strongest night.
Most of all, the award goes to Amy Ryan as a Mike Flaherty’s wife, a passive aggressive cub mother with a telling Jon Bon Jovi ankle tattoo. The role is unchallenging, but there’s perfection in her simplicity. Thing is, I doubt she’ll be remembered a year from now when red carpets are rolled out again. Win Win is just too fluffy to be cared for past a certain age.
It deals with dark issues but fears alienating the happy-go-lucky moviegoers amongst the crowd. Even when young Kyle reunites with his junkie mom, what might have been a window into his torture is a hurried transition for the story to reach a warm conclusion. Did anyone consider steroids? We’ve got a really special, polite kid who’s kept from reaching his potential by greedy parental figures and it should be twisting tighter for the fighter. Had Win Win thrown performance enhancers into the mix, already a serious problem in high school sports, we might have wondered more where his rage would take him, and how it would impact those responsible for the boy, especially when they’re letting him down.
Overall Score: 8.00 – Great. (Movies that score between 8.00 and 8.50 are great representations of their genre that everyone should see in theaters on opening night.)