Friday, December 9, 2011

It's a "Win Win"

I used to think I didn't like sports movies, because I have very little interest in any sports. However, a good film can take any subject and make it compelling, especially if it's coupled with some good human drama, strong characters, and a sense of humor about itself. So when I tell you that "Win Win" has a lot to do with high school wrestling, please keep in mind that the movie's not really about the wrestling. It serves as a focal point, but there's much more going on.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small town lawyer and family man, whose practice serves the elderly. Unable to make ends meet, he takes on the guardianship of one of his clients, Leo (Burt Young), who is going senile and can't live alone unassisted anymore. Leo wants to stay at home, and Mike convinces the judge that he can ensure that as his guardian, but then ships Leo off to a nearby nursing home to avoid doing the work. What Mike didn't count on was Leo's estranged grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) showing up on his grandfather's doorstep unannounced. Kyle ends up rooming in Mike's basement, despite the misgivings of his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), while Mike tries to sort out the situation. It soon becomes clear that Kyle can't go home, but he might be a blessing in disguise. Mike and his friend Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) coach the local high school wrestling team, and it turns out that Kyle is a natural.

Writer director Thomas McCarthy's oeuvre has become pretty clear. He makes small-scale comedy-dramas about unlikely individuals coming together and forming family groups, often through unusual hobbies or interests. In "The Station Agent," a trio of oddballs bond over trains. In "The Visitor," a professor and an illegal immigrant practice drumming together. McCarthy also had a writing credit on the PIXAR film "Up," about another odd-couple duo. So "Win Win," with its wayward characters figuring out where they belong, is familiar territory for him. However, you don't see many filmmakers these days who can handle these topics without making them overly sentimental or cloying or insincere. So I really appreciate it whenever one of his films shows up in the movie landscape, because it proves these stories can be modern and relevant and still entertaining. Like McCarthy's previous work, "Win Win" is a low-key charmer, but in less skilled hands, the material would not have come off nearly so well.

In spite of the eccentric characters, the emphasis on familial bonds, and a genial atmosphere, you couldn't really call "Win Win" a feel good film. Neither is it one of the recent batch of stereotypically cynical, self-aware indies about dysfunctional families. Instead, with its rough edges and big heart, McCarthy manages to strike a balance in tone somewhere between the two. Mike Flaherty is clearly a well-meaning good guy and he's easy to sympathize with, but the plot hinges on the fact that he's done something thoroughly rotten, and no plot twist is going to come along to save him from the fallout in the last act. Similarly, Kyle seems to be well on his way to redemption through the wrestling team, but the film never forgets that he's a seriously troubled kid, and his problems can't be solved easily, or all at once.

The performances are stellar across the board, and a lot of the film's resonance is due to the the fact that the characters come across as very genuine, multilayered people. The MVP award should go to Amy Ryan as the sharp, no-nonsense Jackie, who anchors the Flaherty family, and who everyone is accountable to in the end. Giamatti was never more likable, and Alex Shaffer, making his acting debut here, is quietly the most charismatic presence on the screen. Bobby Cannavale, Melanie Lynskey, and Margo Martindale all show up in smaller roles, all at the top of their game. And I doubt that anyone can resist the charms of Jeffrey Tambor playing a totally ineffectual wrestling coach.

If I have any criticism, it's that "Win Win" is easily Thomas McCarthy's most conventional film. It uses a lot of family drama and sports movie tropes, and doesn't really break any new dramatic ground. But on the other hand, McCarthy executes everything extraordinarily well and never lets the story become formulaic or predictable. "Win Win" is substantive without being heavy, uplifting without being twee. And best of all, it's genuinely funny. The humor is mostly situation, and doesn't rely on any overt jokes or gags, but I found myself smiling through the whole film.

I wish they made more of them like "Win Win."


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