I didn’t realize that writer-director Thomas McCarthy was one of my favourites until I looked up his latest movie, Win Win. As an actor, I’d seen him as Mr. Riley on the David E. Kelley tv series about teachers, Boston Public. As a writer-director, I loved his first movie (The Station Agent) and his second film (The Visitor) was also really good. (Plus, it didn’t hurt that he was a story-writer for the Pixar movie Up.) Anyway, I didn’t really know to watch for his work until Win Win came along and descriptions of this movie included some background on McCarthy. What captivated me about his first two movies (and even Up) was stories that focus on ordinary-yet-dissimilar individuals who meet through somewhat random circumstances and end up forming deep relationships and friendships. I wasn’t sure that Win Win would be the same kind of thing, but I was hoping as much. Paul Giamatti plays suburban lawyer Mike Flaherty, whose legal practice is facing some lean times. When one of his clients is declared incompetent, he learns that whoever takes on guardianship of this man gets paid $1500 a month, so he takes the job. Unfortunately, in a plot point that seems obviously designed to bite him in the end, Mike puts the old man in a nursing home in order to avoid having to actually take care of him. Before you can say “bad karma”, the man’s teenage grandson (Kyle) shows up to live with him but ends up staying with Mike’s family (which includes his strong-willed wife, and a cute, young daughter) until they can reach his deadbeat mom. In his spare time, Mike also coaches the local highschool wrestling team, and pretty soon Kyle gets involved as well — much to everyone’s delight.
I doubt it’s very difficult for Giamatti to play the beat-down, kind-hearted schlub. He’s done it in so many other movies (see also, Sideways). In this one he’s once again paired with a better-looking, more-flaky friend (Bobby Cannavale, who was also in The Station Agent) who actually serves far less of a purpose in this movie. He seems more like a distraction than anything else. The other coach is played by Jeffrey Tambor, whose hound-dog face also seems wasted. The high point of their roles seem to be their fighting over attention from Mike. Surprisingly this movie seems to focus on Kyle, a teen cast in the typical mold, who barely says more than a sentence at a time (and not a very long sentence at that), but who somehow magically endears everyone to him. As he starts to attend the highschool and wrestle on the team, everyone learns more about his past, including his previous success as a wrestler and the bad relationship he has with his mother. Amy Ryan is wonderful as Mike’s wife Jackie, a no-nonsense mom who easily cares for Kyle in a very non-mushy way. (She hilariously struggles with the urge to beat up Kyle’s mom for how she’s treated him.)
While the subtle blossoming of the relationships is what makes a McCarthy movie so good, I was a bit disappointed that from an outward viewpoint, this movie seems cliche. In fact, it seems a lot like a more subtle version of Sandra Bullock’s Oscar vehicle, The Blind Side. Both are stories of underprivileged youth, taken into loving families whose personal struggles bring the family closer together, and both centre around the youth’s outstanding achievement in a particular sport. That being said, while I enjoyed The Blind Side, Win Win seems more realistic and relatable (which is ironic, since The Blind Side is based on a true story, while Win Win is presumably fiction). The characters were not larger than life, and the dialogue had the tones of natural conversation (for the most part). Again, it seemed that Bobby Cannavale’s character was a bit of a cartoon, but he was an aberration in this film.
While I think this movie makes a good rental, I definitely recommend McCarthy’s other two movies first. They possess more of the charm and magic that make for a wonderfully offbeat story. Win Win is more like an indie film by way of an afterschool special. (3.5 out of 5)