Film Review – Win Win

There’s something unusual lurking at the heart of director/writer Tom McCarthy’s latest film, Win Win. But then, that’s the case with all of McCarthy’s films; they’re not exactly what you expect, or what they lead you to believe they are. His first film, The Station Agent, was a pleasant comedy with some surprisingly complex emotional issues. The Visitor, McCarthy’s second film, looked like it was going to be a typical indie dramatic comedy, about an older man who learns to play the drums to cope with life. However, that film was something entirely different, delving into very complex modern day American morals and social issues while all the while maintaining an almost upbeat level of enthusiastic entertainment. It was one of the greatest unseen films of 2008.

On the surface, Win Win looks typical. It begins with a man doing his daily routine. His name is Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti). During the day he is an attorney, who appears to not be doing so well. After business hours he coaches a middle school wrestling team, which is also not doing so well. In between these things Mike has a family he’s providing for. A complication arises, forcing him to help a client on a more personal level than normal. Through this situation Mike meets a teenager, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who happens to be a wrestler. Not just any wrestler, but one of the best in his bracket. Together, Mike and Kyle just might turn not only the losing wrestling team around, but also their lives.

While the film does follow, to a basic degree, this simple and even familiar plot layout, it deviates from its own foreshadowing to just the right degree that it provides a fresh experience that is as emotionally provocative as it is funny and surprising. Paul Giamatti does a solid job of playing a family man struggling to make ends meet. It’s his character motivation that helps set the film down a rather different and interesting path. His job as a lawyer is not doing well enough to pay the bills, something a lot of Americans, ones not even in a similar situation, can relate to in our current economy. Looking for a way to cope with a looming financial crisis, Mike makes a controversial decision. The choice Mike makes is one not most leading characters in similar films make. It’s challenging—to those around Mike as well as to the audience.

Then enters Kyle. Through a series of events, he winds up in Mike’s little town looking for his grandfather to stay with. The situation is not what he’s looking for and soon he’s in need of a home, which leads him to temporarily living with Mike and his family. As soon as Mike finds out that Kyle is a wrestling prodigy, the film begins to take the form of a sports film, leading down some familiar ground to the all important final match. But, like Kyle’s appearance, the situations and choices stand out, not belonging. (That is, to other films in the same style and genre.) Kyle, with his shaggy, bleached blond, Eminem-inspired hair, stands apart from other kids in town, especially the wrestlers. He, like Mike, has personal demons to deal with, ones that result in choices that take us places we weren’t expecting to go.

First time actor Alex Shaffer gives a serious, sincere, and engaging performance as Kyle. Paired up with Giamatti, there’s never a moment where you can see him acting; the two play off each other, complimenting the other’s performance. However, I had a friend a while back who had a steadfast rule that every good movie worth its price of admission had a character that stole the show. He called them, “the man/woman of the movie.” In the case of Win Win, the character of Terry Delfino, played by Bobby Cannavale is hands down “the man of the movie.” Terry certainly provides the comic relief, but his charisma is endearing in an honest way. He keeps the film from ever getting to a level where it loses itself in one direction for too long, a trait that helps Win Win achieve the status of being a truly good film.

This is first and foremost a character story. McCarthy’s films provide great material for actors, and he knows how to get great performances. The movie, through its characters, provides an emotional connection to the issues that plague them. As McCarthy put it in an interview, what these characters are dealing with, the decisions they face, are prefacing the choices a lot of Americans are going to be faced with in the near future, if they aren’t already. However, no matter how real the issues at the film’s heart may be, this is a comedy, a very funny comedy. With a fantastic cast, a solid job of directing, and a compelling story, Win Win is definitely one of the best comedies of the year and one of the best films, period, thus far.

Final Grade: A


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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