Win Win is a smart, loving, friendly movie that sets out to tell a story and succeeds. I see a trend in Indy movies that has developed in the past few years, and that is that almost all of them are entirely character-driven, true-to-life dramas about everyday people in not always everyday situations. These films are mostly showcases for the talents of the writers and the actors and less the director’s work than many studio films. Win Win is another wonderful movie in a long line of this sort of film that started some time in the middle of the last decade. With a perfect cast and sharp, witty, New Jersey dialogue, the result is a funny and meaningful drama with a big heart (if not a little bit predictable).
Paul Giamatti (who never seems to stop working) plays a struggling lawyer named Mike Flaherty who has a hard time making ends meet after his practice begins to fail. Desperate for some extra cash, he agrees to become the guardian to a wealthy, elderly man whom the court has deemed incapacitated. Soon, though, his scheme hits a roadblock when the old man’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up trying to get away from his mother. Kyle is a dead-beat, “angry” teenager who barely says a word and never seems to change his dopey looking expression. Mike and his wife take the troubled teenager in to live with them for a few days until he can go back to his mother. But unbeknownst to the Flahertys, Kyle has no intention of returning to his drug-addict mother all the way back in Ohio. Giamatti delivers another excellent performance in what is becoming a career of perfection for the pudgy actor whose specialty seems to be the everyman. His wife, Jackie, is played by Amy Ryan, whose no-nonsense honesty provides a good contrast to her husband’s sardonic cynicism.
Mike also coaches a High School wrestling team with absolutely no match wins to its record. However, when Kyle asks for permission to work out with the team, Mike realizes his chance to make the team better. Kyle is great! At least, that’s what the movie says. Personally, I couldn’t spot a good wrestler if he sat on my television, but supposedly Kyle is the best there is. Mike enrolls him in the school and Kyle begins to win matches for them. After a while, it becomes obvious that Kyle has made no plans to return to his mother. Mike and Jackie, the good Catholics that they are, agree to take care of him as long as need be. Here, the movie takes a turn toward the predictable. Anyone who’s seen Kramer vs. Kramer knows that eventually the mother will come back and disrupt their perfect word, as she does. But the film is so funny, and Giamatti so wonderful that we can forgive the points at which we know exactly what will happen.
Through many a dirty word, the film maintains a cynical humor that is funny mostly because it mimics real life. It’s rare that a film seems so based in reality. Even most Indy movies require a certain suspension of disbelief. No stretch is required to enjoy Win Win. I’m sure most people reading this review have known at least one person throughout the course of their lives who has experienced something similar to the situation the film portrays. I must say, it’s certainly a well-written film. The characters are each very distinct and very much their own. No one seems wooden or superficial or drawn from the screenwriters’ guild’s “character bank”. The dialogue is believable and human, not poetic or over-intelligent like many Hollywood productions. I think the film ultimately succeeds because as an audience we feel as if we know the people on screen. Without good, three-dimensional characters, a film cannot function, and in the case of Win Win, the great characters and perfect cast make up for the plot’s occasional lack of originality.
Fox Searchlight Presents
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Margo Martindale, Melanie Lynskey, David Thompson. Directed by Tom McCarthy
Rated R for language. Release Date: 18 March 2011