Win Win (2011) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and teen smoking
Running time: 106 min.
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale, David Thompson
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Tom McCarthy
Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) writes this 'winning' comedy/drama about Mike Flaherty (Giamatti, Fred Claus), a suburban New Jersey attorney who is undergoing serious financial struggles in his practice, and its something he's too ashamed to tell his wife (Ryan, Dan in Real Life) and two daughters about. To make ends meet, he takes on a side project becoming the guardian of one of his clients, an elderly man (Young, Rocky Balboa) suffering from debilitating dementia, but he ends up sticking him in a home for the elderly while still collecting the checks for guardianship. However, what was already a challenging proposition becomes all the more difficult when the man's previously unknown 16-year-old grandson (Shaffer) arrives to stay with him, having run away from his abusive home in Ohio. With his job on the bubble and his home life deteriorating, Mike finds some silver lining when the lad displays an ability to wrestle, and wrestle well, and he just so happens to be the coach of a struggling local high school wrestling team.
McCarthy does what he does best, showcasing an odd mix of people and their forced dealings with one another, eventually making their makeshift family and friendships work with their diversity emerging as a strength rather than the perceived weakness they feel at first. He concentrates on richly nuanced characterizations that aren't cheap or thinly defined, and allows their believability to draw out the laughs through our ability to relate to their foibles. There's little that is flashy or contrived, and yet it is inventive in its semi-honest portrayals, strengthened by a cast of comedic actors who are also skilled in giving a serious moment or two when the situation calls for it.
Unlike the theme of most underdog sports films, which is to find a way to win at any cost, Win Win runs deeper, questioning whether one should compromise their morals in order to eke out a more positive existence. Do the ends justify the means, and does the discovery of the questionable means sour the results? The film would have collapsed into sitcom formula had the characters not been fully fleshed out, and their situations never quite resulting into just what you'd expect. You expect the boiler at work to blow up and destroy Mike's business. You expect the tree in his front yard to fall and collapse on his home. And while both factor into the story, it's not quite pat and predictable, which makes for a refreshing view. You know where it's going even if you don't know how you will get there, and are often surprised at what you find when you arrive.
The scope never exceeds the simple story of a man and his problems, even if there are some elemetnts of the story that are crafted strictly for the humor value. It's not always realistic, but it is always true to itself. In place of contrivance, we get nuance. Instead of laughing at the characters when they fail, we smile with them when they find ways to succeed. They are good people, deep down, but life isn't always so rosy for them. Solid performances add texture to the rich characterizations, and an especially impressive performance annchors the more serious aspects of the film with Alex Shaffer, with no previous acting experience (he was cast for his wrestling prowess), crafting in a believable and interesting character.
Win WIn is a gentle, very likeable comedy highly recommended for viewers who enjoy a change of pace, particularly those who enjoy independent films with nice characterizations and themes that resonate on more personal levels. It's more of a crowd-pleaser, and a better film all around, than the Best Picture-nominated The Blind Side, and it's a shame a film this low key will likely not garner a single Oscar nomination. It's not a laugh-a-minute romp, but there are plenty of moments that will surprise you, and even when you aren't guffawing, you will likely be smiling at the ironies life throws Mike's way. If that means you, it will live up to its title.
©2011 Vince Leo