At the Arthouse
Win Win wrestles with sappiness and pins down a movie with spine
There’s a way to describe Win Win that makes it sound like a drag. At first glance, it appears to stick too closely to the template on what passes for film realism these days: it’s got teen angst, redemption and sports.
But in fact the film is a delight, albeit a slightly squishy one, because writer/director Tom McCarthy and his superb cast bring almost all of the pat-sounding situations to life. The characters look and sound familiar, but, because they are so closely and lovingly observed, they have the capacity to surprise an audience, and make an audience believe in them, and not feel guilty for caring about them.
McCarthy’s film begins with scenes from a failing lawyer’s life. Mike (Paul Giamatti) has seen his practice to shrink virtually to zero. He can’t afford to repair his office’s clanging furnace, which plays hell with his hard-partying secretary’s perpetual hangover.
Mike is afraid he won’t be able to keep his family, wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two daughters, in a middle-class lifestyle. He sees a chance to pocket some badly needed, but not kosher cash when he represents Leo (Burt Young), an old man entering into dementia, in a competency hearing. Leo is well off, so Mike figures out that, if he can get himself declared Leo’s guardian, he can pocket the stipend the state of New Jersey would give him as such.
In the meantime he can tuck Leo away into a nice nursing home, paid for out of Leo’s own money. Here’s where the title comes from: Leo gets the care he needs, even if he doesn’t get to stay at home like he badly wants, and Mike gets a desperately needed $1,500 a month.
Mike isn’t a really bad man — he’s played by Paul Giamatti, after all, who somehow projects warmth and tenderness even when he’s playing a real jerk, as he did in the recent Barney’s Version. He’s just an ordinary schlub, a little down on his luck, feeling entitled to cut a corner, if the corner presents itself. Sounds like a lot of people.
In any event, Mike is also a volunteer (I presume) wrestling coach for the Bad News Bears of the high school mat. They haven’t won a meet, and perhaps not even a match, since time immemorial. This is the point where, in less sensitive hands, the movie could’ve become pure formula. Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) whom Leo didn’t know existed, shows up at Leo’s house one night. He’s run away from home in Ohio and wants to move in with his only viable relative.
Mike takes him to meet Leo, and then brings the boy home with him, to the dismay of his wife, who’s amusingly afraid that the teenaged drifter is going to harm her family. But, surprise surprise, Kyle is a championship level wrestler, capable of leading Mike’s sad-sack team to the promised land. It’s another win-win. They can give Kyle a temporary home, and he can provide Mike with a self-esteem boost, if nothing else, by making him a winning coach.
This is where the film becomes most surprising. All things considered, you’d expect Kyle to have some extremely rough edges. And Schaffer, who’s debuting here, does have the standard juvenile delinquent look and speech patterns. But somehow all of the monosyllabic dialogue that comes out of his mouth is heart-breakingly sweet. Can a kid with Kyle’s background really be this good? I have my doubts, but to Schaffer’s rather immense credit, he makes you believe that he can.
The other performances are nearly uniformly strong. With Giamatti, you really do forget that he’s performing, and simply accept him as the failed lawyer and coach. Bobby Cannavale has a very funny turn as Mike’s old high school wrestling buddy who’s going through some hard times of his own. He experiences a kind of second adolescence when he becomes Mike’s assistant coach. And Amy Ryan gives her character a fierce integrity that becomes the film’s moral center, as when she threatens to go to Ohio and beat up Kyle’s druggie mom (who is the film’s one rather stock character).
One last surprise: the film’s redemption angle has nothing to do with wrestling. When Kyle overcomes the odds in his life and finds happiness, it has nothing to do with pinning another teenager to the floor.
Win Win nicely balances pathos and humor, and works in just enough truth to give itself a spine. I hope it finds an audience.