Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) brings teenager Kyle (real life wrestling star Alex Shaffer) home to stay with his family.
In addition to being a busy screen and TV actor, Tom McCarthy writes and directs small, quirky films like The Visitor and The Station Agent, intimate stories about a handful of people trying to sort out their own situations. Win Win shows us the world through the eyes of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a small-time attorney whose humble New Jersey law practice barely pays the bills, which he’s too proud to tell his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan). Mike moonlights coaching a losing high school wrestling team that’s not getting any better. And when his elderly client Leo (Burt Young) requires a legal guardian, Mike takes the job himself for the extra paycheck, but then moves Leo into assisted living. Suddenly, Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up at Leo’s empty house looking for his grandfather. So Mike brings Kyle home to stay with his family until they can send Kyle home to his mother Cindi (Melanie Lynskey), who’s finishing drug rehab.
So, just to recap: Mike wants more income and the respect of his family, Leo wants to live in his own house, Kyle wants a sane life in a normal family, and Cindi wants Kyle to come home. If this sounds like a big snooze, stay with me. What follows is a series of events that reveal the true nature of each character by the decisions they make and to what extent they consider the repercussions.
Win Win illustrates how people behave according to their needs, and what happens when their needs collide with the needs of others. In other words, life. As viewers, we observe the personal journeys of several people who intersect in unexpected ways. Trajectories get derailed or rerouted, and well-meaning people get challenged, hurt, or deceived. Personal conflicts abound, though we don’t see any exploding vehicles, and the high school wrestling matches are as close as we come to violence or steamy naked encounters. This story is about people, and we care about them because they’re full of strength and weakness and their dilemmas are easy to relate to.
What else works is the fine casting of Giamatti and Young, as well as Jeffrey Tambour as assistant coach, Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s amusing buddy Terry, and Amy Ryan as Mike’s wise and loving wife. And kudos to real-life New Jersey State Wrestling champion Alex Shaffer, who pins his first screen acting role as Kyle, and masters the drone of teen-speak. Personally, I would have fleshed out some of the resolution dialogue to make it a little more satisfying, and clarified the legalities of guardianship. But the story holds our attention and sticks with us.
Win Win reminds us of something we know but can never hear too often. That we will inevitably butt heads on the way to wherever we’re going, but there are always solutions. And if we behave less than nobly, and if we recognize our mistakes, and if we are forgiven, we can try again. B+
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