"Win Win", the new film from writer/director Tom McCarthy ("The Visitor", "The Station Agent"), is a charming, funny, poignant and predictable comedy. Given the overall quality of the film, I can live with the few predictable moments.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a struggling lawyer in a New Jersey suburb whose clients, senior citizens, are dying, and leaving him with shrinking revenues. His wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone", TV's "The Office") stays at home to raise their kids. He also coaches the high school wrestling team, a team both he and his buddy, Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale, "The Station Agent") were members of in high school. But Mike is having trouble with the team's terrible losing streak. One day, Mike comes up with the idea to become the court appointed guardian of one of his clients, Leo (Burt Young). Leo wants to stay at home and Mike promises to make this happen in an effort to earn the $1,500 monthly commission. Instead, he finds a nursing home nearby and gets Leo situated. Just as soon as everything is settled, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo's long lost grandson, shows up, looking for a place to stay; Kyle's mom is in Rehab and even if she weren't, he doesn't want to live with her. Mike and Jackie take Kyle in until they can figure out what to do. Kyle asks Mike to take him to wrestling practice one day and then asks if he can workout with the other kids. Mike and his assistant coach, Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) are surprised to see Kyle has a lot of great skills. There just might be hope after all.
When I think about Tom McCarthy's films, the first thing that comes to mind are the interesting characters he creates. McCarthy is actually a very recognizable and prolific character actor who has appeared in a large number of films and television shows. You would recognize him immediately and say "Oh, yeah. Him!". A large number of his film appearances have been in well-respected films. I'm not sure if this makes him a better writer/director, but something is working. In each of the films he has directed, the characters seem like people we might meet on the street, but each is a little odd or has a strange little quirk. Because he starts off in a real place and then takes the actors to a different or strange place, everything about his films seems more human. "The Station Agent" was a pretty funny film, featuring some very memorable performances. "The Visitor" was a better film, less funny, but more involving and poignant. Now, "Win Win" seems to combine the best elements of both.
Mike is a struggling lawyer with a very small practice. Finding time to coach the high school wrestling team is not a problem because Mike's client base, senior citizens, shrinks with each client's death, so he tries to make ends meet by doing 'overflow' work for another law firm. When this starts to dry up, he becomes a bit desperate. His newest client, Leo, is about to be made a ward of the State of New Jersey; he frequently gets confused, he has no relatives, he hasn't seen his daughter in 20 years, he will be taken out of his home. But Mike decides he should be made Leo's guardian. He tells the judge he will ensure Leo stays in his home, which is what Leo wants. But as soon as Mike becomes the guardian, he puts Leo in a nice local rest home and starts to visit. The reality of the situation is very different from what Mike promises will happen.
McCarthy spends some time setting up Mike's world, giving us a look at all of the different facets of his life. Mike and Jackie clearly love each other, are clearly devoted to each other and have also been together a long time. They almost seem to have a second language between them.
Then Kyle enters the picture. The teen is not portrayed in a typical way, he is shy, quiet and troubled, but he also engages with Mike and Jackie and their kids, showing interest in their lives, wanting to become involved. And he also seems to enjoy spending time with his grandfather, just sitting and watching television.
Giamatti's performance is not groundbreaking. In fact, it is very similar to many other performances on his IMDb list. Mike is struggling--- to make money, to keep his health in check, to keep things in control. He loses his temper and tries to be supportive and loving. It is a performance we have seen Giamatti play before and he does it well. His desperation leads him to do something he probably wouldn't have done otherwise and we see why this is a necessary step for his character.
Amy Ryan is really good as Jackie. When she first learns of Kyle, her maternal instincts kick in and she becomes concerned for this kid, for him, wanting to protect him. But her New Jersey instincts also kick in and she becomes concerned for her family, wanting to protect them. She doesn't know Kyle and he could be dangerous. But the mother in her wins and she agrees to bring him into their house.
Jackie is a very well rounded character and Ryan reveals Jackie's different subtleties throughout. At one point, Kyle asks her if he can go to the store with her. She's shocked. Why does this teenager want to spend time with an adult? But during the trip, they get to know a few things about each other. Jackie quickly realizes Kyle wants to do these things because he misses this level of connection; it is missing in his relationship with his mom.
Cannavale's Terry is the comic relief. He and Mike have been buddies forever and while Terry seems to be better off – bigger, newer car and apartment – his life is actually in more of a shambles. A painful divorce has left a void in his life. I know, sounds funny doesn't it. But Terry is so insecure and Cannavale uses this insecurity to make the character funny. When Terry realizes Mike might actually be able to coach his team to a few victories, he immediately pressures Mike and Stephen to let him become an Assistant Coach. That is how desperate he is for something positive to happen in his life.
This proves to irk Stephen (Tambor) and the two become child-like as they try to earn the attention of 'dad' Mike.
Alex Shaffer plays Kyle. As soon as he shows up, complete with bleached white hair, Mike and Jackie don't know what to make of him. But as he spends more time with them, it becomes evident he is just a normal teen who has had some rough times with his mom. He needs, even seems to crave, a connection with a normal family. This need isn't immediately evident; he's a teenager so he seems to take everything in stride and shows little emotion.
Shaffer brings such a low-key quality to the performance; it is difficult to tell if he is acting, if he is simply reading his lines, or if he is a brilliant young actor. In a way, the monotone timbre of his speech seems to fit perfectly with his character. A troubled teen, he seems pretty quiet when he first meets the Flaherty family. They accept this because they realize they have to earn his trust, as he has to earn theirs. He has to become comfortable in order to open up to them.
Thankfully, Kyle is not the stereotypical rebellious teenager. He doesn't seem angry and upset at the world, just his mom. Maybe that does make him a typical teenager. As he spends time with the Flaherty family, he opens up, engages, asks questions, and becomes involved. This makes Kyle different from most teens and makes him more interesting.
But Shaffer's level tone of voice caused me to wonder, on more than one occasion, if he was simply reading his lines. The performance is more than that. As Kyle begins to feel more comfortable, he becomes chattier. It is a good, realistic portrayal of a troubled teen.
One of the best things about McCarthy's films is they are filled with rich observations, moments we wouldn't see in other films, but in these films, they add another level of detail. In "The Visitor", Richard Jenkins' character exudes a palpable feeling of dread and loneliness. Then, he meets the immigrant couple who have been unintentionally squatting in his New York apartment and things begin to change. When he begins to play the drums, you see the joy, the relief in his face. In "Win Win", there are many moments. Kyle visits his grandfather and they just sit and watch TV and both seem to enjoy their time together. Later, after Kyle joins the wrestling team and helps them to a few wins, Mike and Jackie are in their kitchen having a conversation. During the discussion, Kyle leaves the basement, where he is staying, followed by half of Mike's wrestling team. Mike and Jackie just watch the parade of teenagers follow their new leader, their new idol, out of the house.
When the predictable moments come, late in the story, they seem like a small price to pay for all of the good moments before. They also seem a little necessary and are handled better than most other films would. All in all, these moments even seem a little acceptable.
"Win Win" is one of those independent gems you need to see in a theater, to show your support, and to help ensure more independent gems find their way to the multiplex.