Thomas McCarthy is an odd duck. A moderately successful character actor—one of those guys you say “Hey, he was in Law and Order or something, wasn’t he?"—he’s also directed three very successful little indie films.
What’s truly odd about it, though, is that if you had to describe his movies, you’d be inclined to use words like "benign”, “good-hearted”, and even “moral”. His debut was the unique slice-of-life film The Station Agent, and his follow-up was the widely acclaimed The Visitor.
Now we have Win Win, the story of a struggling lawyer/wrestling coach whose life is changed when the teenage grandson of his ward wanders into his life.
When this movie was first promoted, I was saying “I wonder if Paul Giamatti will be John Adams cranky, Harvey Pekar cranky or Miles Raymond cranky?”
Probably the biggest shock of this movie is that Giamatti isn’t cranky at all. He’s genial. Amiable, even. He’s a hugely decent New Jersey lawyer (!) named Mike Flaherty who specializes in helping old folks out. After regular hours, he coaches the local high school’s awful wrestling club. And he’s in some financial trouble.
Relief, of a sort, comes in the shape of Burt Young (who, at 70, looks healthier to me than he did in his 30s). Burt Young plays Leo Poplar, a rich old man whose early onset dementia requires a guardianship that can bring in a small amount of needed cash.
Mike is a really decent guy, so you’re a bit taken aback—disappointed even—when he commits his sin. He maintains his decency in almost every regard (though he is forced to do some lying to cover it up, of course) and so you’re almost inclined to give him a pass.
This feeling is reinforced when Kyle shows up. Kyle is the 16-year-old grandson of Leo, who’s run away from home (sort of). His mother is in rehab and his mother’s live-in boyfriend is an abusive jerk, so Kyle decided to come see his grandfather (whom he has never met).
Kyle ends up staying with Leo and his hard-bitten wife (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters, where he blossoms in a normal, healthy household environment. With Mike’s sin sitting there in the background waiting to blow the whole thing to bits.
The first two thirds of the story has Kyle, who happens to have been an excellent wrestler back in Ohio, re-entering wrestling on Mike’s team, and rediscovering his talents. Mike coaches the team with his law partner/office roommate (played by the inestimable Jeffrey Tambor) and brings on his rich high school pal (played by Bobby Cannavale, also of The Station Agent).
The wrestling stuff is both entertaining and inspirational, as the team gets better and better with Kyle’s leadership.
Cannavale’s character’s Terry is an interesting counterpoint to the humble Leo. He’s a wealthy guy; his wife has left him for a handyman, although not actually left so much as kicked him out of his massive house. He’s got himself a condo which he’s already fully stocked with furniture, a big TV and a Wii. But he’s miserable. He was a terrible wrestler in high school, but comes to see coaching as the only way to take his mind off his troubles.
The contrast is wonderful, as both are completely oblivious. Mike’s never even seen a Wii (the cheapest of gaming consoles). Yet you never get a sense of jealousy or bitterness from him. It never occurs to him to ask for help from Terry—the opposite, really, as Terry frequently finds himself envious of Mike.
The final piece of the puzzle emerges when Kyle’s mother shows up. I found myself thinking, “Hey, this is the best acting I’ve ever seen Drew Barrymore do! But that’s not Drew Barrymore.” It was, in fact, Melanie Lynskey, an actress like Thomas McCarthy, in that you’ve seen her a lot but probably don’t know her name.
Good acting all around, although I’ve seen some criticisms of young Alex Shaffer’s performance as Kyle. I can only assume those criticisms come from people who have never known teenage boys, particularly those who have had traumatic backgrounds. I found his flat affect very recognizable.
The Boy and I both enjoyed this immensely. Interesting, deep characters involved in serious moral conflicts. Easy contender for best film of the year to date.