Small town New Jersey eldercare lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, "Barney's Version") is hoping to keep his financial worries from his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone," TV's 'The Office') to save her the stress, so when Leo Poplar (Burt Young, "Rocky") is upset by the idea of having to leave his home, Mike assumes his guardianship - and the $1,500 a month that comes with it. But Mike does not honor his promise and deposits Leo in Oak Knoll, the local assisted living facility. Who would ever think that the unexpected appearance of Leo's sixteen year-old runaway grandson Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer) would end up leading to a "Win Win?"
Writer/director Thomas McCarthy ("The Station Agent," "The Visitor") has built a terrific filmography using small, personal stories about people from very different backgrounds coming together to form reconfigured families with at least one member getting a second chance, a strong theme in his latest. "Win Win" is about a lawyer with a flagging practice who moonlights as the high school wrestling coach for a very losing team. McCarthy's put together one terrific ensemble, including former state wrestling champ Shaffer who's a charismatic natural in his acting debut.
McCarthy knows it's all in the details and tells us a lot in his opening scene, where Mike and his practice partner Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor, "Hellboy," TV's 'Arrested Development'), also his assistant coach, confer over their building's failing boiler. Mike's secretary Shelly (Nina Arianda, another terrific casting choice) informs him that he only has two appointments that day and complains about how the boiler noise is impacting her hangover. At home, Jackie struggles with the couple's toddler and reminds Mike about expensive home projects (a much needed tree removal) and bills he can ill afford. Mike copes with his stress by running ('From what?' asks their preteen Abby (Clare Foley)) and by occasionally buying a pack of cigarettes, from which he extracts one to smoke, throwing the rest away in the dumpster behind the convenience store. It's no surprise Mike's best friend Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale, "The Station Agent," "The Other Guys") mistakes Mike's anxiety for a heart attack.
Things ease up with Leo's guardianship and Mike can mail in his family's health insurance bill. But the arrival of bleach blonde, tattooed, cigarette smoking Kyle throws everything up in the air. Jackie's nervous about keeping the kid in her basement, but when she learns that Kyle's mom is in a drug rehab, her maternal instincts kick in. When it seems Kyle will be around for a while, he enrolls in the local school and Mike discovers he has a champion wrestler on his hands. Kyle even inspires Mike's weakest athlete, Stemler (David W. Thompson), to get in the ring using Kyle's 'whatever the f*!%$ it takes' moves. Then Kyle's mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey, "Beautiful Creatures," TV's 'Two and a Half Men') appears on the scene and Mike's terrible secret comes out.
McCarthy's films are character driven. He doesn't use showy cinematic flourishes, just straightforward filmmaking with production and art direction that inhabit real middle class neighborhoods in real, lived in homes, local courts, senior care facilities and school gymnasiums. All his major players go through a metamorphosis. Mike must face his moment of moral weakness in the eyes of those who looked up to him. Kyle leaves behind his delinquent past to embrace the decent young man that's always been there. Jackie overcomes her prejudices to find the diamond in the rough. McCarthy also achieves depth to his story by what he leaves out, such as the lack of envy or competitiveness between struggling Mike and his friend Terry, a wealthy day trader. Only Cindy remains underwritten - her motivation is clearly cash, but she never seems a typical hard case drug addict and the extreme hatred Kyle exhibits towards her is left unexplained. It is also hinted that the relationship between Cindy and her dad is less than great, but Leo naturally assumes a communion with his grandson.
The cast is wonderful. Giamatti is such a schlubby Everyman with recognizable problems that we genuinely feel betrayed when he makes a bad decision. Ryan is warm and hilariously human as the lioness protecting her cubs, her youthful Jersey Jon Bon Jovi girl still informing the adult. Shaffer knows how to project a lot with very little fuss, dialogue or even facial expression - he's not quite sullen, but not exactly cheerful and we feel his comfort in his new situation. Burt Young charms as the gruff old man.
McCarthy works tremendously well with his actors and his story feels so organic, its marvelous humor rooted in real life, that one can overlook the fact that "Win Win" is built on a pretty big coincidence. It's a feel good movie that earns its warmth without sentimentality or manipulation.
Actor turned director/writer Tom McCarthy made a solid debut in 2003 with “The Station Agent,” then proved his talent as a helmer with “The Visitor (2007).” His third outing behind the camera is another fine chapter in the filmmaker’s book of works with “Win Win.”
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer who has fallen upon hard time. His legal business is failing due to lack of clients. He is in over his head with bills and one client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), is put before the courts to establish legal guardianship. When Mike learns that he could make an easy $1500 a month by taking on the role as guardian, greed makes the decision for him. He promises to keep Leo in his own home and see to his well-being. However, Mike does not have time to take care of Leo every day and, instead of going to his house, the old man is put into a nursing home. Michael takes the money without guilt.
A wrench is thrown into the works when Mike goes to Leo’s house to pick up some things and finds, on the doorstep, a teenage boy, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) who claims to be Leo’s grandson. He is as he says and Mike invites the boy to stay, for a couple of days, in his home with his family. This is unwelcomed news for Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), who is afraid of having a total stranger in her house with her children. Her maternal instinct kicks in, though, and she relents and taciturn Kyle slowly fits into the family.
Mike also happens to be the coach of the local high school wrestling team. They are consistently losers and Mike asks Kyle if he wants to practice with the ream. Kyle goes along with Mike and, to the coach’s great surprise, the boy turns out to be a natural wrestler and a seasoned competitor. He joins the team and Mike sees his life finally straightening out – he is paying his overdue bills and it looks like he may have a win win situation. Then, Kyle’s mom,, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), a recovering drug addict, shows up in town looking for her son. Mike realizes that her arrival could bode ill on several levels.
Tom McCarthy shows his deft hand, probably because for most of his career he was in front of the camera, in garnering strong, often funny, performances from his actors. He showed that skill with Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale in “The Station Agent.” With “Win Win” he expands his horizons by creating a more complex story (co-written with Joe Tiboni) and directing a far larger cast. McCarthy is a success on both fronts.
The veteran cast – Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young and Melanie Lynskey – give real dimension and feeling to their characters. But, out-of-nowhere newcomer Alex Shaffer is the glue that helps hold “Win Win” together so beautifully. Kyle does not say much but Shaffer makes him speak volumes with a look or body language. His physical ability on the wrestling mat shows, too, displaying the grace and power of the sport.
Techs are straightforward and not the reason to see “Win Win.” The fine acting, interesting characters, terrific script and, of course, direction are the reason to do yourself a favor and see this film. I give it an A-.
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