SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | March 26, 2011
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writer(s): Thomas McCarthy (screenplay & story), Jim Tiboni (story)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a mediocre lawyer in a quaint, recession-crippled New Jersey town. Business has slowed to a crawl, and Mike finds himself unable to pay for the un-budgeted expenses at his office (replacing the clanky old boiler) and at home (removing a dead tree from his front lawn). Unable to admit his dire financial situation to his wife (one that could very well signal the end of his family’s modest suburban middle-class life) Jackie (Amy Ryan), Mike forges onward with business (or lack thereof) as usual.
A long time ago, Mike was an average high school wrestler; now he’s the volunteer head coach of a losing high school wresting team. Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor), the accountant with whom Mike shares his office space, is the team’s assistant coach, despite the fact that he has no wrestling experience. Mike’s best friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale), later joins the fold as an assistant coach. (Terry wrestled in high school, but was not good.)
In summary: Mike is juggling two major dilemmas — his grim financial situation and his losing wrestling team — and this is where writer-director Tom McCarthy’s knack for dropping strangers into his characters’ lives in order to motivate them to make changes comes into play…
BEWARE OF SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD!!!
One such character is Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an elderly client of Mike’s who has developed dementia and refuses to leave his home of many years. Leo’s only next of kin has been missing in action for twenty years, but Mike discovers that Leo’s estate will pay $1,500 a month to a legal guardian and snatches that job up for himself. Rather than bringing Leo home, as he promised the court that he would, Mike purgers himself (and double-crosses Leo) by placing Leo in a top-of-the-line elder care facility called Oak Knolls. So, Leo ends up exactly where he would have been if the state of New Jersey became his guardian — and this is probably where Leo legitimately belongs — and Mike gets some desperately needed income…is that so wrong?
But that only solves one of Mike’s dilemmas…what about the wrestling team?
Well, I am glad you asked. Leo’s long estranged drug-addled daughter, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), has a teenage son named Kyle (Alex Shaffer). Kyle has recently run away from his broken Ohio home with the hopes of living with Leo, the grandpa he has never met. But since Leo lives in a nursing home, Kyle ends up having to live with Mike and Jackie, a responsibility that becomes much easier to swallow when Mike discovers that Kyle is a champion wrestler!
Everything is hunky-dory until Cindy comes to town looking for Kyle and wanting to collect the monthly $1,500 checks for her father’s guardianship. Suddenly, Mike’s career and family are put at stake because of his recent unethical decisions.
Mike’s morally questionable decisions — taking Leo’s money, exploiting Kyle’s talent, keeping secrets from Jackie — may make him sound shifty and opportunistic on paper, but things are not so black and white in Win Win. Mike’s misdeeds, seemingly self-serving at first, come from a place of decency and compassion. Additionally, Mike’s excitement over Kyle’s wrestling abilities proves that his current state of despairing disrepair is not merely financial in origin. Kyle fills an empty void in Mike’s life which propels Mike to turn his life around. It really is a win win situation and in the end…everyone is a winner!
Win Win possesses the very same carefully nuanced human qualities of McCarthy’s two previous films — The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007). Again, McCarthy plops his complex, yet entirely plausible characters, into a variety of somewhat unexpected situations and allows us to observe how they realistically respond. But Win Win abides by more Hollywood conventions than The Station Agent and The Visitor, regrettably falling back on an always-reliable “Sports Movie” trope with a semi-climactic “Big Game” tucked neatly in its game-changing and life-affirming (and all too neatly and tidily tied-up) third act.
The screenplay, which is co-written by McCarthy and his New Jersey lawyer friend Joe Tiboni, features a lot of fantastic dialogue, but the plot is overly riddled with coincidences. As it turns out, McCarthy seems less concerned with the overall narrative than the weight that the moral implications bear on his characters. McCarthy wields an impeccable talent for left-of-center human dramedy, all the while allowing the scenarios to develop in an organically heartfelt manner. Whether McCarthy is commenting on narrative clichés — the down-on-his-luck coach and the troubled-but-talented star — or relying on them as a crutch is still up for debate.
Giamatti’s often seen sad sack persona (a rather frumpy and featureless everyman, saturated with exasperation and despair yet buoyed by pungent wit) and rare talent for creating intense empathy for sketchy characters is a win win combination for McCarthy’s film. Like Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Giamatti is quite an unconventional leading man; one who is unattractively ordinary, and therefore undeniably real. Giamatti’s naturalism effortlessly carries over to Ryan, Tambor and Cannavale as well, thus saving their characters from drowning in their otherwise cartoonish caricatures.
Speaking of naturalism…Shaffer — a real-life former New Jersey high school state-wrestling champion, not an actor — is effortlessly convincing; he perfectly embodies Kyle’s peroxide-blond teenager who speaks in a disaffected monosyllabic monotone. And, for the most part, Mike and Jackie’s youngest of two girls, Abby (Clare Foley), is funny without relying into any movie-cutesy pratfalls…except for one somewhat forced (you know, for laughs!) use of profanity. (Oh, out of the mouths of babes!)
Win Win is about decent people with bad luck who make horrible decisions. Just like the clanging boiler in the basement, pressure is building quickly and anxieties stemming from financial desperation (caused by the economic recession) back Mike into a corner, forcing him into a snowballing charade that could have no other possible outcome than to splatter across his noggin. When times get tough, maybe bartending is not that bad of an option…