REVIEW: Win Win [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: March 18th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Thomas McCarthy
Writer(s): Thomas McCarthy / Thomas McCarthy & Joe Tiboni (story)

“We have kids, Mike. I’m not taking chances with Eminem down there.”

Just when I finally catch Thomas McCarthy’s debut film, The Station Agent, and deem it the touchtone all his other work will be compared towards, he one-ups himself with Sundance fave Win Win. Delving into the human psyche and second chances once more, his newest may be his most palatable. The cast is a bit more recognizable at its present, while still holding to indie stars, and even though the subject matter may be a fringe topic like previous work—high school wrestling—the type of sport means less than the atmosphere surrounding its relevance inside a teenager’s life, especially one as troubled as Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer). And to lead the way with his everyman attitude and penchant for audience empathy, Paul Giamatti joins McCarthy’s gallery of leading men to carry the emotional weight necessary for balancing out the comedy. No matter how serious the plot can get when dealing with a lawyer’s abuse of power, a young boy striving for a better life than with a recovering junkie mother, and the wellbeing of a mentally incapacitated senior citizen, Win Win has its large share of laughs.

The Flaherty family is the film’s center, a glimpse into their seemingly well-adjusted quartet starting our journey. Young Clare Foley’s absorbent Abby gives us our first grin of pleasure with her confident use of a certain four-letter word and Giamatti’s Mike’s wry expression when appeasing wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) shows the heart and love lying at their foundation’s base. But, as we all know in our own lives, a willingness to provide for happiness is never enough and the Flahertys aren’t exempt from this reality. Mike’s law practice has hit a dry spell, panic attacks have cropped up to debilitate even when doing his doctor ordered jogging to alleviate them, and the boys he coaches at Pioneer High may be the worst wrestlers he’s ever had the pleasure to know. The full extent to the direness of his situation becomes deflected with Giamatti-brand quiet sarcasm, riffing off friend, office building co-habitant, and assistant coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and his polar opposite of a life best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), a man yearning to get back at the ex-wife who took control of his mansion.

Terry knows how to make a buck and isn’t afraid to show it, but Mike has never been that type of guy. A court-appointed attorney dealing with the elderly and sick, he helps to make a difference and pays the price for his passivity through his wallet. So, when the apparently harmless chance to make an easy fifteen hundred dollars a month rears its head, he guiltily—this is Giamatti, guilt perpetually rules his face—accepts. In his mind, the con helps his client Leo (Burt Young) by not letting the state of New Jersey become his guardian, even if Mike puts his new ward into a nursing home anyway. Leo has the means to pay a mortgage and senior community fees, so Mike lies that the judge ordered him to leave his home because he just doesn’t have the time to do the job he accepted for the money. He’s not just going to leave the old man in the hands of underpaid staff, though, he’ll check in to make sure things are going okay—or at least he tells himself he will. We never do get the chance to see whether conscience will prevail as Leo’s grandson Kyle is soon found on his doorstep.

An unexpected problem for many reasons—Mike hasn’t told his wife about his scamming Leo, taking home another child certainly won’t help his fiscal issues, and as time passes, the quiet kid’s past rises to the surface—Kyle changes the entire equation. He’s a good kid who was simply dealt a crappy hand in his upbringing. Moving from Ohio was a chance to escape and possibly do something with his life. A former wrestling star at his old school, criminal activity saw him thrown off the team and thrust into a downward spiral he hopes to rectify. And therein lies the title’s Win Win situation—if Mike makes the boy a part of the family, Kyle gets a stable home for once and the lawyer receives a wrestler with skills he’s only dreamed about. Mike—and Terry, in a big kid kind of way—sees the chance to coach a real talent while providing Kyle a warm home, even if only for the short term. But the inevitable discovery of his error in judgment to start the whole weird situation constantly hides in the background along with the boy’s mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), close to leaving rehab and collecting her son.

The central plot resonates strongly as ideas of love and family are reinvented and contradicted. Blood is meaningless when money’s at the base and Leo has enough to make it an issue. No matter how pure anyone’s feelings towards Kyle, Mike will never be any better than Cindy as long as his greed remains hidden as the reason he met the boy. Thus, this dream-like mirage of suburban bliss must screech to a halt once reality breaks through. Giamatti is the perfect guy to ride the roller coaster and be both sympathetic and a disappointment at the same time. Lynskey and Ryan are wonderful complements with ulterior motives and an aggressive need for order respectively, while Young buries himself in dementia with grace and real life Hunterdon Central High wrestling champ Shaffer turns his tenacity on the mat into a stirring portrayal of a tumultuous teen—his monotone stoicism hiding any lack of seasoned acting ability with authenticity. McCarthy also drags another stellar performance from Cannavale, a highlight of the film’s humor—especially pitted against Tambor and overshadowed only by David W. Thompson’s use of ‘the force’ during a match—and necessary relief in an otherwise heavy film with a brilliant menagerie of well-written, complicated residents.

[1] From left: Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in WIN WIN Photo Credit: Kimberly Wright TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp
[2] From left: Clare Foley II, and Amy Ryan in WIN WIN Photo Credit: Kimberly Wright TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp
[3] From left: Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in WIN WIN Photo Credit: Kimberly Wright TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp

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