Win Win

A winning comedy-drama
Win Win
Rating: Win WinWin WinWin WinWin Win

Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale, David W. Thompson, Mike Diliello, Nina Arianda, Marcia Haufrecht, Sharon Wilkins, Clare Foley. Written by Thomas McCarthy & Joe Tiboni.

Also opening this week:

Tom McCarthy´s Win Win is an engaging, likable comedy-drama that does one thing especially right: it never takes the easy way out. So many films use plot mechanics as a way of resolving the story and avoiding the tough questions. It´s refreshing to see one that relies on its characters to get themselves out of their own predicament.

Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a small-town attorney and high school wrestling coach struggling to make ends meet and buckling under the pressure. He´s afraid to confront his wife (Amy Ryan) about their financial situation, and he does something dishonest: he becomes the legal guardian of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an elderly client suffering from dementia, in order to put him in a retirement home (despite Leo´s wishes of staying in his house, and Mike´s guarantee to a judge that he can arrange this) and pocket a monthly paycheck from the state.

Mike does this – and gets away with it, at least initially – because he was unable to locate Leo´s closest relative, a daughter he hasn´t seen in decades. But he´s in for a surprise when Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up at Leo´s front door. Kyle is the grandson Leo never knew he had, looking for a place to stay away from his drug addicted mother (Melanie Lynskey) and her abusive boyfriend. Mike takes him in. What choice does he have?

Mike soon learns something else about Kyle: he´s a talented wrestler who was forced to give up the sport at his last school. As Kyle becomes a part of Mike´s family, he enrolls him in the local school, and signs him up on the wrestling team, which he co-manages with friends Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor). Everything is going well until Kyle´s mother shows up, looking for her cut.

Director McCarthy previously made a splash with The Station Agent in 2003 and The Visitor in 2008, which earned Richard Jenkins a Best Actor Oscar nomination. An actor himself – he was particularly memorable as journalist Scott Templeton on the final season of The Wire (if you haven´t seen it, do so; it´s one of the finest TV series ever produced) – McCarthy has displayed a special gift with actors over his three features, getting especially honest performances in each of them.

Win Win is no different, with Giamatti at his best (recalling Sideways, and indeed, the characters and their early misdeeds have distinct similarities) and excellent support from Ryan, Cannavale, Young, and particularly newcomer Schaffer, a high school wrestler making his film debut. Only Tambor seems under-utilized.

Win Win is endearing and funny and above all it feels genuine: these are real characters, with real problems, and no easy answers. And instead of the plot contriving to solve their problems, they´re left to work through it themselves, and they become stronger characters for it.

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