Though I had heard some positive buzz about the film Win Win, I resisted it for a while largely because it hadn’t been very adequately described to me. What little I knew about it made it look like one of the unremarkable “sundancey” movies that I’m frankly pretty sick of. I suppose the poster, which featured the young actor Alex Shaffer staring forward with a stupid Michael Cera look on his face, was what really turned me off to the whole thing and frankly I had trouble distinguishing it from the other Sundancey movies coming out around the same time like Submarine and The Art of Getting By. What had eluded me was that this film was being made by one of the few people who are actually good at making “sundancey” indies: Todd McCarthy. Realizing that it was the director of The Station Agent and The Vistor that was helming this project, I decided that I did need to catch up with Win Win and I’m glad I did.
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a lawyer who advocates for the elderly by trade and also serves as the assistant wrestling coach at a local high school. He takes pride in the fact that he helps people with his trade but it isn’t overly lucrative and he increasingly has to struggle to provide his wife (Amy Ryan) and two young children the lifestyle they’re accustomed to. To bolster his accounts he hatches a scheme to act as the legal guardian of an old man (Burt Young) who can no longer care for himself, placing the man in a nursing home, and then pocketing the guardianship fee that he’ll earn from the state. It seems like a harmless plan a win win both for himself and for the old man who would have ended up in a nursing home either way. However, the scheme is complicated when the old man’s estranged sixteen year old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) suddenly appears, having essentially run away from his drug addicted mother and abusive step father. Flaherty offers to take the boy in for the time being, only to learn that Kyle is a champion wrestler who could be just what Flaherty’s team needs to get out of a losing streak.
Win Win is like Todd McCarthy’s previous films in that it centers on a mild mannered male protagonist who’s in a bit of a rut until he meets someone that allows him to open up for the first time in a while. The difference is that Mike Flaherty isn’t really a loner in the same way that The Station Agent’s Finbar McBride or The Visitor’s Walter Vale were. He’s married, has two children, has a functional relationship with an old high school friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), and works well with fellow coach Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor). There is however a great sense that he is unsatisfied with his accomplishments and ashamed of his inability to provide for his family to the extent he’d like to. In this sense he has a lot of the same problems that those earlier characters had except that it hasn’t driven him into isolation so much as it has driven him into a secret and seemingly harmless bit of fraud.
One thing that’s changed between McCarthy’s first two films and Win Win is that he’s now working with much trendier actors. Peter Dinklage was virtually unknown before McCarthy made The Station Agent and while Richard Jenkins was a respected actor with a long career long before he was in The Visitor he was decidedly a character actor who had mostly shined in small supporting roles. Paul Giamatti on the other hand is a pretty big name. He’s maybe not a full fledged movie star in the eyes of the average movie goer, but within the world of movies released by the “independent” divisions of large studios he is. Similarly, Amy Ryan is an actress who’s on a pretty big roll right now having earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Gone Baby Gone and also having popped in on some trendy T.V. shows like “The Wire” and “The Office.” Jeffrey Tambor has also become a pretty regular supporting character within the world of quirk-dom ever since he was on “Arrested Development” (a show that seems to have greatly risen the coolness factor of anyone attached to it aside from Ron Howard).
All this (along with the film’s distribution by Fox Searchlight) gives one the sense at first glance that McCarthy has chosen to pander to some of the less pleasant trends in low-budget-but-populist comedies, and while this isn’t really the case there are elements of the film which do feel that way. The film is generally more jokey than either of McCarthy’s previous films though I wouldn’t really call it funny. Most of this material is delivered by a generally superfluous character played by Bobby Cannavale who is easily the film’s weakest link, but otherwise the film does manage to navigate away from much of the more irksome territory that I was afraid it would plow right into. For example, I was really worried about the wrestling angle of the film’s story; firstly because Greco-Roman wrestling is a bizarre and not overly cinematic sport, but mainly because I was afraid it would turn Win Win into a clichéd sports movie, The Bad News Bears in reverse if you will. Fortunately these fears turned out to be unfounded; whenever I thought it would finally turn sour it pivoted and placed the focus right back on the characters and on the main story. The wrestling material serves to illustrate certain aspects of the Schaffer and Giamatti characters rather than to have those characters shape the wrestling.
Win Win is not a film that inspired me to shout its praises from a mountain and I also wouldn’t call it better than McCarthy’s previous films. That said, the film definitely rose above my expectations and while this is at the end of the day a pretty typical example of a “Sundance-film” I do feel that it is worthy of rising above the masses forgettable movies that are of a similar type. I’m not sure that the film will stay with me a particularly long time but I definitely enjoyed the movie while I watched it and feel that it is certainly worthy of a rental or of a viewing on cable.
*** out of Four