Win Win

© 2011 Ray Wong

As an actor, Thomas McCarthy is limited with supporting roles, but as a writer-director, he's been giving us critically acclaimed, poignant, and personal stories. Win Win is no exception.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small town geriatric lawyer specializing and a high school wrestling coach. He's happily married with Jackie (Amy Ryan) with two little girls. But he's struggling to make ends meet, as his business has been slow. When he comes across an elderly client, Leo (Burt Young), who is being forced into a home for dementia (because they can't locate his only daughter), Mike decides to become Leo's guardian. Not out of goodwill, but because he gets $1500 a month. Without telling his wife or the court, he puts Leo in a home anyway and pockets the $1500 for himself.

Everything seems to work out just fine until Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up. It seems that Kyle has left home. And that means they now know where Leo's druggie daughter is. Mike reluctantly keeps Kyle around until he finds a way to send Kyle home. But Kyle grows on the Flahertys. Mike is amazed when he finds out Kyle is a superb wrestler. With Kyle on the team, they may actually have a chance to advance to the state championship.

But that puts Mike in a tough quandary: Should he send Kyle back to his mother so he doesn't get caught with his little "scam," or should he do the right thing and protect Kyle? That question is made even more urgent when Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynskey) arrives in town to claim custody for both her father and son.

Paul Giamatti (The Last Station) is Hollywood's go-to man to play superbly ordinary men. He's the least likely "movie stars" but because of his tremendous talent and unique type, he's one of the most popular and busiest working actors. Here, Giamatti gives us a wonderful, nuanced, conflicted and flawed character, who is driven by his love for his family and friends and his pride as a failing lawyer, husband and father.

Amy Ryan (Jack Goes Boating) reunites with Giamatti in this movie, playing his strong, opinionated, but loving and supportive wife. Ryan is a perfect counterpart to Giamatti, and their superb acting brings the movie to a high level. Newcomer Alex Shaffer no doubt got the part for his real-life wrestling capabilities, but his acting isn't sloppy either. He's given a heartstring-tugging performance as Kyle. He's someone to watch.

The supporting cast offers some comic relief. Bobby Cannavale (The Other Guys) is hilarious as Mike's wacky best friend. Jeffrey Tambor (Tangled) is adorable as Mike's grumpy assistant coach. Burt Young (The Hideout) is effective as Kyle's curmudgeon of a grandfather. And Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!) is heartbreakingly conniving and vulnerable as Kyle's messed-up, drug addict of a mother.

Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor) is so good at writing "original" people in unusual circumstances. His story is always down to earth and relatable, with memorable but flawed characters. Granted, there are some contrived moments and plotting: I mean, it's quite a coincidence that Mike coaches wrestling and a gifted wrestler just happens to show up, literally, at their doorsteps. Part of the joy of watching a McCarthy's movie is the dialogue and interactions between the characters. They feel so real and unpretentious. We're like flies on the wall watching these people living their ordinary lives. And yet McCarthy doesn't meander, either; there is a plot. And the plot is driven by complex emotions and conflicts, often in the context of "what's right or wrong?"

There's a moral dilemma everywhere you turn, and you realize these characters are good people, but they have their own problems and issues, just like you and me. They make mistakes. They do bad things. They hurt the people they love. But we like them anyway because they're fundamentally good people, and eventually, they know how to do the right thing.

I think that's what's so extraordinary about McCarthy's writing and direction. He's a no-thrill writer and director. No special effects. No big car chases or explosions. No life and death situations. And yet his characters and situations are interesting and relatable. It makes you feel good inside even though the characters may not be perfect, or there is not always a happy ending. Movies like his, independent or not, are win-win for all of us.

Stars: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writers: Thomas McCarthy, Joel Tiboni
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, alcohol and drugs, violence
Running Time: 106 minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 7.8 out of 10

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