Friday, April 1, 2011

Review of Win Win

A different effort from director/writer Tom McCarthy, but just as rewarding as initial efforts. Worth watching for sure.

This review previously ran in ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Tom McCarthy's first two films, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), were intimately crafted, keenly observed slices of life featuring regular people whose lives were interrupted. In an indie marketplace where slickness and gimmick sell—ladies and gentlemen, Quentin Tarantino—McCarthy's films were devoid of ironic, look-at-me gloss. They felt authentic because their power snuck up on you. Emotional assault was not on the agenda.

The writer/director's latest effort, Win Win, is a departure. It's a feel-good movie starring Paul Giamatti, who is Johnny Depp compared to the almost anonymous leading men (Peter Dinklage, Richard Jenkins) in McCarthy's previous films. The problems here are more easily defined, less grounded in pregnant pauses and subtle emotional shifts. It sounds like a sell-out, but McCarthy uses his restraint to make Win Win into a heartwarming drama that never churns the stomach.

Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a classic nice guy and neighborhood fixture who can't leave church without talking to five people. Mike's high profile and ease with his neighbors in New Providence, NJ (McCarthy's hometown) only takes him so far. His law practice is floundering, making it difficult to support his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and their two small kids. Even his after-work activity, coaching the perennially awful high school wrestling team, provides little solace.

Mike does have one client, the wealthy Leo Poplar (Burt Young), whose early-stage dementia requires a guardian. Mike is all set to put Leo in assisted living—in fact, he's in the courtroom making the arrangements—when inspiration hits. He'll become the old man's guardian, put Leo in new digs, and pocket the $1,500 monthly salary. Leo's only family is his estranged daughter, so Mike can finally get something for nothing. Not so fast. Leo's thuggish grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), has come to New Providence, hoping to stay with the grandfather he's never met. Since no one can take Kyle—his mother is stuck in rehab—Jackie volunteers, showing a generosity that Mike cannot muster.

While Mike worries about now supporting three kids, Kyle tags along to wrestling practice, where he participates and displays otherworldly talent. A little Internet research reveals that Kyle was a high school champion back in Ohio, which really piques Mike's interest. He enrolls Kyle in school and the two start to bond. But Kyle's newfound happiness is threatened by the domestic drama he left behind, specifically his fresh-from-rehab mom (Melanie Lynskey).

McCarthy's earlier films featured first-rate acting, and Win Win is no different. No one plays hard-luck characters better than Giamatti, and his work here is expectedly excellent. Better yet, he looks defeated, a characteristic that gives his performance depth. Ditto the casting of the ever-reliable Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), who actually resembles and behaves like a mom. Despite using actors we know and featuring Bon Jovi on the soundtrack, McCarthy still disdains glamour, opting to cover people with problems. The actors still look like your friends and neighbors, including newcomer Shaffer, whose sad croak of a voice tells us volumes about what he left behind. The most attractive person here (Bobby Cannavale, playing Giamatti's friend) has the most apparent problems: Divorced and living alone in a sterile, upscale bachelor pad, he practically begs Mike to help coach the wrestling team.

Win Win features the hallmarks of a conventional dramatic storyline—a sports team coming together, the beleaguered family man—but McCarthy doesn't revel in its banalities. Kyle's arrival doesn't turn the team into a championship contender, probably because his winning ways are hard to emulate. He escapes capture by pretending that his opponent is "holding my head underwater and I do whatever the f**k it takes" to break free. The attempt from assistant coach Vig (Jeffrey Tambor, yet another ace character actor) to turn that mindset into a rallying cry is a great jab at the inanity of locker room speeches. Even the "coming together" montage, a staple of every sports movie ever made, feels fresh; one highlight features Kyle and Mike triumphantly removing an old tree from the Flahertys' front yard. Clearly, team spirit is not the only thing being created.

It's a family drama with shades of gray. For a protagonist, Mike is not an altogether likeable guy. He thrives on appearances: At his most frayed, he smokes a single cigarette behind a convenience store, out of view from the public. He initially views Kyle as a hindrance—Jackie has to remind him that taking in Kyle is necessary—but Mike warms up after marveling at the boy's wrestling footage. McCarthy trusts dialogue and his performers to deliver the impact, which gives Win Win a meditative weight. No one tells us that Mike can't comprehend how he's failed despite doing the right things. It's conveyed in Giamatti's sad features, how Mike tells Jackie over the phone that she can finally pay the health insurance as he deposits an ill-gained $1,500.

You want a subdued approach for this kind of movie. When characters raise their voices, you pay attention. Win Win isn't just another fine dramatic effort from McCarthy, but an encouraging, even bold, step. His gift for peering into the lives of others has not diminished. Win Win, though, shows how versatile that approach is. I can't wait to see what McCarthy does next. [R]

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