Amid a very busy month, FilmEdge finally caught up with Tom McCarthy‘s comedy/drama WIN WIN and we’re adding our recommendation to see it in theaters if you seek solid acting and character-based cinema amid the superheroes and sequels this spring.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a small-time lawyer in a small town who doubles as the high school wrestling coach while struggling to make ends meet for his family. When an aging client Leo (Burt Young) is on the verge of becoming a ward of the state, Flaherty steps in and agrees to care for Leo so he doesn’t lose his home. Flaherty worries about keeping his own home with few law clients, so the money earned as Leo’s guardian is a welcome aid. Yet Mike doesn’t tell his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) about the arrangement, moving Leo into a senior care facility that can care for him best. Yes, this sounds nefarious but both McCarthy and Giamatti make a meal out of exploring the moral ambiguity of this bind, weighing the benefits to both Leo and Mike with the questionable legality of Flaherty bending the law as his court-appointed guardian. Mike truly cares for Leo and Leo trusts him in return, yet the win-win scenario Flaherty arranges quickly becomes a complicated test of Mike’s moral character.
Writer/director McCarthy excels in these tales, turning one character’s life upside down when another person enters their life to knock them out of their comfort zone. McCarthy did so in his superb 2003 film THE STATION AGENT starring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale — which remains one of FilmEdge’s top favorites of the last decade — and he explores more character-driven drama in WIN WIN, though with slightly less impact and wit this time around. That’s no knock against this current film, rather its context of an average American family struggling through tough times resonates with a bit more visceral seriousness in the guts of viewers, and its dramatic situation seems less fictional as many face similar bottom line issues.
Mike’s dilemma only grows more serious (and enjoyable humorous) when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) appears on his doorstep looking for his grandfather. Kyle’s bleached hair and “dude” attitude certainly make him stand out in this small town, but Flaherty is compelled to take the boy in — especially when he hears Kyle’s run away from his mother in rehab to seek a safe family environment. A short stay becomes longer term as Mike, Jackie and their two daughters shed their initial wariness and warm up to Kyle, who pitches right in with family chores to earn his keep. Of course the plot’s strength is not if Kyle will fit in to the Flaherty family, but how he and Mike learn to accept each other. Naturally Kyle’s presence only raises the stakes for Mike keeping his secret about Leo’s guardianship benefits, and the tension derived from this ticking plot-bomb impels the film forward effectively.
Jeffrey Tambor lends his typically dry humor as Mike’s friend and fellow team coach as both men live for the dream of finding wrestling glory again. McCarthy alum Bobby Cannavale delivers more take-down laughs as a frustrated man caught in mid-divorce and yearning for mid-life renewal. Cannavale benefitted from a deeper character in THE STATION AGENT, but his undeniable, somewhat goofy charm shines through once again. Giamatti excels in playing characters like Flaherty, yet here he refuses to repeat his prior work, playing Mike as far less neurotic than his depressive failed author Miles in SIDEWAYS. Wisely, the actor lets his self-made predicament overwhelm him rather than running emotionally amok to overshadow his life, and so Giamatti’s performance is well-tempered if comparatively low-key.
Amy Ryan matches Giamatti in emotional range and impact, if not in actual screen time which is a slight disappointment given her skills in comedy and drama. Jackie’s real impact on the story and Mike’s actions happen late in the story, which hinders her character development from full fruition. Reportedly young Shaffer was cast as Kyle for his real-life wrestling skills, but his ‘amateur’ status as an actor grounds the troubled boy in emotional reality that’s palpable and serves the story well. Burt Young makes the understated most of his small role, wringing sufficient confusion, despair and fleeting moments of joy out of Leo’s character without ever dipping into sappy pathos.
FilmEdge is late in praising WIN WIN, but it’s never too late to promote a good character drama made for thoughtful audiences who still enjoy solid drama and some good laughs. Our rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5.