Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Movie Review: Win Win

Win Win *** ½
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy.
Written by: Thomas McCarthy.
Starring: Paul Giamatti (Mike Flaherty), Amy Ryan (Jackie Flaherty), Alex Shaffer (Kyle), Bobby Cannavale (Terry Delfino), Jeffrey Tambor (Stephen Vigman), Burt Young (Leo Poplar), Melanie Lynskey (Cindy), Margo Martindale (Eleanor), David W. Thompson (Stemler), Mike Diliello (Jimmy Reed), Nina Arianda (Shelly), Marcia Haufrecht (Gina Flaherty), Sharon Wilkins (Judge Lee), Clare Foley (Abby).

Looking over Paul Giamatti’s screen credits on IMDB, I am surprised by how few villains he has played. Not to be mean about it or anything, but actors who look like Giamatti normally have to make their living playing creepy bad guys. But for the most part, Giamatti has avoided those roles, and instead built a career out of being a classic everyman. And unlike most actors who play “everymen”, Giamatti actually looks like one. He perfectly plays the types of men that no one really notices in real life. Lovable losers, sad sacks, family men, etc. Giamatti plays these guys better than just about anyone else out there right now. So it’s only natural that Thomas McCarthy cast him to play Mike Flaherty in his new film Win Win – it is a roll that no one could play better.

Mike is a nice guy. He is a lawyer, but not a very successful one, having trouble making ends meet in his small practice where he basically represents old people looking to do wills and the like. He is married to Jackie (Amy Ryan), and they have two daughters, and he is worried about how much longer he can keep the practice going. His latest case is representing Leo (Burt Young), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and who the state wants to put into a home. Mike loses the case, but convinces the judge to let him become Leo’s guardian instead – this pocketing an additional $1,500 a month for the job. He then punks Leo in the old folks anyway, even though he told the judge he wouldn’t. He doesn’t see the harm. Leo has no family, except for one daughter he hasn’t seen or heard from in more than a decade, so who really is he hurting?

Things get more complicated when Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up. He says he is Leo’s grandson, who had to leave home because his mother is in drug rehab (not for the first time), and her boyfriend in an asshole, so he came to stay with the grandfather who never even knew he existed. Not wanting to leave the kid on his own, Mike and Jackie take him in for what is supposed to only be a few days, but of course turns out to be much longer. Mike, who coaches wrestling at the local high school brings Kyle to practice one day – and discovers that is good. State champion good. The two begin to bound – and Kyle begins to bond with Leo as well – but hanging over it all is the lie Mike told, and the realization that it will eventually come out. When Kyle’s mother Cindy (Melanie Lynsky) shows up, things get more complicated.

Win Win is a somewhat predictable movie, and one that is built on the type of coincidence that rarely happens in real life. I mean, truly, what are the odds that Kyle would be a great wrestler who just happens to being staying with a high school wrestling coach? But when a movie is as lovable as Win Win, you hardly notice or care about these things. This is a movie that moves effortlessly between comedy and drama, and remains at its heart a character driven film anchored by wonderful performances.

This is director Thomas McCarthy’s third film, following The Station Agent which gave wonderful roles to Peter Dinklage, Bobby Canavale and Patricia Clarkson and The Visitor, which gave great roles to Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass. A character actor himself, McCarthy clearly loves working with actors, and crafts roles that seem perfectly suited for the people he casts. Giamatti is wonderful in the lead role and carries the film, but the entire cast is excellent. Amy Ryan in some ways has the typical supportive wife role, but it is deeper, more humane than most of others. Alex Shaffer is a find as Kyle, who perfectly captures the bitter, lonely, quiet yet overall lovable teenager he plays. Great supporting work is done by Jeffrey Tambor, as Mike’s assistant coach, Cannavale (in his best role since The Station Agent) as Mike’s best friend, and Melanie Lynsky (a personal favorite of mine) as Kyle’s mother – even if she is the most coherent and healthy drug addict I’ve ever seen in a movie. There are no throwaway roles here – they are all crafted with care, and McCarthy gets the best out of his actors.

I know Win Win is not exactly groundbreaking or original, but it is a film I couldn’t help loving. It is a film that sees clearly the difficulty to make ends meet in today’s world and yet remains a feel good story. The movie never gets bogged down or depressing, nor overly sentimental. It is a film that made me laugh quite a bit, smile almost constantly and as I walked out of the theater, I felt happy. It is one of those rare films that I feel I could recommend to just about anybody, and feel confident that they'd like it.

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