Win Win is a sports movie, of sorts. But it's one where the titular concept is not very important.
This is the third feature from veteran actor turned indie filmmaker Thomas McCarthy (he was the contemptible reporter Scott Templeton on The Wire). McCarthy's first, 2003's The Station Agent, was a quirky sleeper about a loner dwarf (a superb Peter Dinklage) who inherits an abandoned railroad depot. His second, 2007's The Visitor, was a quirky breakout hit about a buttoned-down, middle-aged widower (Richard Jenkins, Oscar-nominated) who is rejuvenated by African drumming (sort of).
This third film, while similarly strong, is quite different: more understated, more "normal," less exotic.
Here, Paul Giamatti (as terrific as he's ever been) is Mike Flaherty, a small-town New Jersey lawyer whose modest private practice is struggling. While he tries desperately, and mostly silently, to keep his business afloat, Mike's labors of love include his wife and two kids and a part-time gig as the coach of the hapless local high school wrestling team. (McCarthy casts his Wire co-star Amy Ryan as Giamatti's wife, Jackie, and she brings the same sense of decency and practicality to this role as she did to Wire cop Beadie Russell.)
At the outset, Mike is having panic attacks over his financial troubles and is contemplating taking a second job, but he sees another way out in the form of Leo (Burt Young, in another bit of inspired casting), a well-off client who, due to dementia, can no longer take care of himself and whose estranged daughter (Melanie Lynsky) can't be located.
Mike offers to act as the man's guardian, misleading the judge about where Leo would live. Mike checks Leo into a high-end retirement home, pocketing the guardianship fee ($1,500 a month), but he also remains kind and attentive. This minor scam is complicated when Leo's grandson, Kyle (first-timer Alex Shaffer, who seems very much like a real teenager) ships in from Ohio, landing on the front stoop of the now-deserted home.
Mike and Jackie take in Kyle — under the circumstances, what other option do they have? — until his mother — maybe in rehab — can be found. And it turns out — in one of those movie coincidences that Win Win makes you forgive — that Kyle was a ranked wrestler in Ohio who can be a difference-maker to Mike's losing squad.
This all seems a little tidy, but McCarthy's screenwriting is so assured and his film's characterizations so rich that it all works. If you judged Win Win only by its trailer, you might think you were in for a conventional "inspirational" sports movie. But that's not quite what this is. You'll think you know where this film is going. But McCarthy sidesteps such obvious bits as the big match and the big courtroom confrontation in smart, effective ways.
That Mike's original deception unravels is unavoidable, but Win Win plays out the scenario in a manner that provokes laughs, compassion, and palpable discomfort. Mike's intentions aren't pure, but there's a practical, even moral, logic at work. Like so many people — and this movie is about, ahem, everyday people more than any American movie in recent memory — he's trying to cut corners and stay afloat while, if not doing the "right" thing, at least not doing the wrong one.
As a writer and director, McCarthy does his characters right. And to choose a metaphor from a different sport, he sticks the landing.
Opening Friday, April 15th