Mike Flaherty is down and out. His law practice is barely surviving on a month to month, client to client basis. He’s got a wife that loves him, two kids that adore him, a newborn that needs feeding, and a gig as head coach for the local high school’s God awful wrestling team. He’s getting by, but just barely.
Then he finds a loophole: a not entirely moral, but entirely legal, method to secure an extra $1,500 a month. Think about that: $1,500 ain’t a whole hell of a lot of money, especially for a family of five with a dwindling law practice, but Mike believes it’s enough, and he carries on appropriately.
That is until Kyle, the teenage grandson of one of Mike’s clients, winds up (through a set of amusing circumstances) practically on his front porch. After much debate, Kyle, with his bleach blonde hair and indifferent demeanor, is taken in by Mike’s family. What slowly unfolds is, essentially, a surrogate father and son story. Mike and Kyle seemingly have nothing in common, but their distinct personalities allow them to understand each other. Well, that and the fact that Kyle turns out to be a wrestling prodigy, pinning the shit out of anything that moves.
As Mike, Paul Giamatti delivers yet another damn near perfect performance. Giamatti is the rarest of actors, he’s got the look of a supporting player, but the emotional intensity of De Niro in his prime. There’s a brief scene between Mike and Kyle right before Kyle takes the mat for the biggest match of his life. The moment could play out like a typical “Go get ‘em, son,” motivational bore. But watch what Giamatti does with it. He keeps his voice inflected just below a yell, and every word sounds like it might crack through tears. It’s a glorious moment, arguably the best in the film, and Giamatti nails it.
But there are two people in that scene, and damn if Alex Shaffer doesn’t carry his own weight. Shaffer plays Kyle with such an impeccable sense of teenage detachment that it’s utterly mystifying to watch. Win Win is Shaffer’s first role... in anything. More please.
Rounding out the cast is the ever evolving Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife, underrated comic gem Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend, Jeffrey Tambor as the assistant coach, and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle’s fleeting, drug addicted mother. Ah, Melanie Lynskey, the remarkable character actress whose come on like a scene stealing hurricane, clipping moments from the likes of Matt Damon (in The Informant), George Clooney (in Up in the Air), Edward Norton (in Leaves of Grass), or an entire film completely (as in Away We Go). Look out for her, she’ll soon become a seriously leading player.
Win Win is directed by Tom McCarthy, who made the delightful Station Agent, and the remarkable The Visitor. Although you probably know McCarthy better for his work as an actor (the other son in law in Meet the Parents, the sleazy journalist in The Wire), McCarthy has a real knack for capturing genuine human nature on film. He can nail the funny and the sad, the quirky and the sincere. And, in the case of Win Win, therein lies the problem.
Win Win is funny, filled with a slew of laugh out loud moments. It’s also endearing, filled with a slew of moments that are quite heartbreaking. In its funniest and most heartfelt moments, Win Win shines. Where it gets (slightly) lost, however, is in its tonal shifts from one to the other. At times, the pacing is off, the camera work is decidedly detached, and the screenplay is stale. Fleeting though those moments of curious disorientation may be, it’s still enough to lower the scope of the film.
Lower, not ruin. See Win Win, you’ll enjoy it. Just don’t be surprised if there’s nothing to really talk about after. B