Win Win (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

As strong as Giamatti and Ryan are, the real find here is Schaffer, who nails Kyle’s almost manic-depressive switches between very sweet and scarily angry.

 

 

Actor Tom McCarthy has made a name for himself as a director with 2003’s The Station Agent and 2007’s The Visitor, both surprisingly solid entertainments that seem like they should have had strong commercial appeal but never quite broke out of the art houses. His new film, Win Win, is his most populist-seeming film yet—it’s a fun, funny, sometimes rousing story populated with likeable, three-dimensional characters, which is basically McCarthy’s trademark, as broad a statement as that might sound.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a lawyer whose practice is struggling. Although Mike is basically a good man, early on in the film he sees the opportunity to make some money off of one of his clients, an old man named Leo (Burt Young) who is rich but has no immediately track-down-able family. Mike signs on as his guardian to get the monthly stipend then dumps Leo in a nursing home against his wishes. Despite the immorality involved, it really works out well for everyone. Mike is able to keep his practice (and family) afloat thanks to the extra income, and Leo probably should be in a home or have some other form of constant care anyway, instead of living on his own as he has been.

Of course trouble doesn’t take long to arise, this time in the form of Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a punkish teenager who ran away from his mom (Leo’s daughter) and plans to stay with Leo. Mike is ashamed of the situation with Leo—he doesn’t tell anyone about it, not even his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan)—so Mike’s family takes Kyle in until things can be sorted out and he can be shipped back to his mother. As it turns out, Kyle’s a very sweet kid and a phenomenal wrestler, and Mike happens to be the coach of a struggling high school wrestling team. Again, despite the oddness of the situation, it seems to work out best for everyone if Kyle continues living with the Flahertys. That is, until his druggie mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) pops up hoping to horn in on dying Leo’s money, and maybe to reclaim her son in the process.

One of the tricks of Win Win is that it could have been a blockbuster had they cast a more attractive actor as Mike—the role doesn’t require him to look like Paul Giamatti does (and I don’t mean to imply ‘ugly’ so much as ‘real’). Giamatti’s presence will probably keep Win Win stuck in the art houses like the rest of McCarthy’s films. It’s a shame, as I can’t imagine another actor doing as good a job as Giamatti. But everything else is there—this movie is pretty much pure formula, right down to the strong need for suspension of disbelief with regard to some of the key plot points.

McCarthy’s one weakness as a director is that he is much better at directing comedic scenes than ones of high drama, and his films tend to feature both ends of the spectrum. This holds true here, but that’s okay, as Win Win is closer to the comedic Station Agent than the dramatic The Visitor. And as strong as Giamatti and Ryan are, the real find here is Schaffer, who nails Kyle’s almost manic-depressive switches between very sweet and scarily angry. It also helps that Schaffer is apparently a strong wrestler in real life—it really sells the wrestling scenes.

We’ve had a number of good independent directors make the switch to big Hollywood pictures in the last decade (the most obvious example being Christopher Nolan), and it seems strange to me that McCarthy hasn’t been co-opted on that front yet. He has basically been making should-be blockbusters all along, and he apparently has the ins in Hollywood as he acts in a lot of the big, dumb shit they release every year (last year’s 2012, by way of example). Maybe it’s more of a John Cassavetes-type thing, where he takes roles in big films to fund his small pictures, and wants to maintain control of his work as a director. If that’s the case, let’s hope he keeps doing it—the method seems to work. | Pete Timmermann

 

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