Win Win, Thomas McCarthy (2011)

Win Win is what I’d call a modest success.  It’s about a down-on-his-luck lawyer and family man, played by Paul Giamatti, who agrees to take over the guardianship of an elderly client in the early stages of dementia.  And as a result, he ends up taking care of the the man’s grandson when he shows up in town.  Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty coaches the high school wrestling team on the side, and as it turns out, the kid Alex is something of a wrestling prodigy.  Mike’s best friend Terry Delfino is also going through personal turmoil after the breakup of his marriage, and Mike and Terry both become increasingly invested in both Kyle’s plight and his wrestling career as a means of finding something positive in their own lives.

Win Win is blessed with a really good cast.  Amy Ryan plays Mike’s wife, and you really can’t ask for two better actors than Giamatti and Ryan.  And director McCarthy, a working actor himself, obviously knows the language of actors and works very, very well with them.  Bobby Cannavale, playing Mike’s friend Terry, finds both the comedy and emotional weight to his role, and shines in his supporting part.  Melanie Lynskey, as Kyle’s drug-addicted mother struggling with her own recovery, brings a lot of emotional complexity to her limited screen time.  Alex Schaeffer, as Kyle, isn’t really asked to do very much, but he fits the part quite naturally.  In addition to the delinquency of the character, there’s also a kind side to him, struggling to make a connection, and his scenes with Amy Ryan play with this quite nicely.

There’s a bit of a narrative snafu to the story, as early on when Giamatti agrees to take on guardianship of Leo Poplar, his main reason for doing it is so that Leo can continue to remain living in his own home instead of at an assisted living facility where the state wants to place him.  But immediately Leo’s shown living in that very same assisted living facility anyway.  Part of this plays into the plot and the third act, but it’s confusing early on as it seems there must be essential scenes missing that have been cut from the film.  I understand McCarthy not wanting to overplay his hand, but I think in handling this the way he does, he actually does the movie a huge narrative disservice and even cripples it.

Win Win is equally heart-warming and depressing.  It has moments of occasional humor, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny.  It feels honest, and it’s refreshing to see a film that accurately depicts the financial hardship most Americans have been enduring for quite some time, and the ways it compromises quality of life, often requiring people to make sacrifices, cut corners, or both.  But for all of that, Win Win never really emotionally connects.  Giamatti has one little speech where he tells the kid during a wrestling match “You stay in this, okay?  This is your place, this is your place– you control it, remember?  You control it!”  But that’s probably the biggest emotional moment in the movie, and the only time it comes close to addressing its own themes.  And that moment is so much of what the movie is about– Mike and Terry admiring the kid having this one thing that’s eluded the grasp of the harsh realities of life, and being a little bit jealous of that but wanting to protect the kid and maybe get a little piece of personal success through osmosis.  That desire, and Mike’s resulting relationship with Kyle, is the door that takes him to a place where he has to examine the path he’s headed down with his own life and the choices he’s started to make.

The film certainly has some admirable intentions, and the characterizations and relationships are very honest, naturalistic, and true.  But Win Win also stays very close to center, so much so that it borders on the stagnant.  It could have really benefited from more humor, more pathos, or more emotion; not necessarily all three, but at least one of them to help give it more definition, color, and character.  It’s still worth a watch, but anyone should go in with very modest expectations to be able to enjoy the film’s modest triumphs.

Director McCarthy previously made The Station Agent and The Visitor.


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