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Home » Culture and Criticism

24/31: Win Win

Submitted by on December 26, 2011 – 10:42 AM7 Comments

Suburban-Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who seems to represent seniors exclusively, is floundering. The office needs a new boiler and a new toilet, a dead tree on his front lawn needs removing, he’s got a family to support, and the high-school wrestling team he coaches on a volunteer basis is a disaster. So, when he sees an opportunity to make a little extra cash by assuming guardianship of a client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), he takes it — and stashes Leo in a home, albeit a nice one, even though Leo wants to stay in his house.

Leo is beginning to suffer from dementia, and Mike can’t locate Leo’s daughter, but Mike knows that doesn’t justify the move (he doesn’t tell his wife about it, Exhibit A), and it’s not long before a chicken comes home to roost, rather literally, in the form of Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who’s run away from home to come stay with Leo. Of course his mother (Melanie Lynskey) is in rehab; of course his mother’s boyfriend, never seen, is an ass; of course it turns out that Kyle can wrestle; of course Kyle ends up staying with, and charming, the Flahertys and their two little daughters. Of course Mike’s best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale in a spot-on hairpiece), flailing after his wife kicked him out and moved on with their contractor, finds new purpose in helping coach the team. Of course sad-sack teammate Stemler (David W. Thompson) finds something to believe in in Kyle, and of course that dead tree comes down with Kyle’s help, and of course Kyle’s mom shows up to take back what she thinks of as hers.

I’ve made Win Win sound, perhaps, like a rather saccharine “family is where you find it” Mary Sue a clef, and on paper I suppose that’s what it is. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy, who not only directed the downright fantastic The Visitor and The Station Agent but also played the contemptible Templeton in The Wire‘s final season, usually pushes harder, asks more from the audience in choosing to side with flawed or weird characters. But something happens off the paper that makes the movie, while not necessarily an achievement, a happy way to spend two hours. I can’t speak for everyone, but because the movie is set one town over from where I grew up, because the establishing shots show an intersection I drove through a hundred thousand times as a kid, because the old-age home is named after the other girls’ school in my town, I felt like I knew the characters before any of them uttered a word. (The first word uttered onscreen, by a six-year-old? “…Shit.” So that didn’t hurt either. Heh.) The too-nice sign in front of the Springfield-Ave. practice; Amy Ryan and her flawlessly subtle North Jersey lilt, shuffling onto a set of bleachers with the younguns…I know that place.

For people who don’t know or care where the Friendly’s used to be in that establishing shot, I think it’ll still work. The acting puts it over; you believe that all this could happen, and you want all this to happen, even the too-neat and by-numbers parts…in fact, especially those parts. Giamatti, Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor as Mike’s beleaguered officemate and assistant coach (whose nickname, in a nice touch, is “Vig”), Bobby Cannavale reprising certain aspects of his Station Agent character’s neediness — and Alex Shaffer, cast for his wrestling skills but completely believable from the jump.

It’s directed well, too, aside from the story itself. McCarthy knows how to keep things moving and not take any one beat too seriously; we’re allowed to think that things are funny, or not a huge deal, and he has a good instinct here for when it’s about to get melodramatic and we need a little slapstick. Again, I wouldn’t call this a momentous dramedy, but I had a really good time watching it, I really liked the people, and there’s something to be said for a well-fashioned movie that does what it sets out to do.




  • Randee says:

    I really liked this movie and had hoped it would get more play than it did — it’s not too indie-quirky or sickly sweet at all. I think part of the problem it has is it’s rated R, and really it’s a PG13 movie with just a few F words in key places. This is what I wish teens were into, not Twilight. But I’m old.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Eeee, Melanie Lynsky! I’ve adored her since Heavenly Creatures and will definitely check this one out.

    Randee, have you read Ebert’s take on “R” ratings for the F word or flash of tit, in movies perfect for the 13-20something age group? He’s great.

  • attica says:

    I so enjoyed both McCarthy’s other films so much, I knew I’d enjoy this one. He has a deft touch with letting the actors fully realize their characters, without pounding the audience over the head. This is a better fit for Giamatti than Barney’s Version, if you ask me.

  • Seankgallagher says:

    Maybe it’s because I adored The Station Agent and The Visitor so much, but I was a little disappointed in this one because it was a little paint-by-numbers. Granted, that’s just me, and there is a lot to like in this, including Giamatti, Cannavale (he should definitely play more characters like this one and the one he played in The Station Agent), and as you say, Amy Ryan. Also, though I never wrestled, I knew a lot of people in high school who did, and the team dynamics felt very authentic.

  • Kitty says:

    I loved this movie and was so surprised that it wasn’t a bigger hit. I tend to not notice what a movie is rated (childless 40yr old speaking), so this is the first I’m knowing that it was rated “R”.

    That is fucking ridiculous!

  • Randee says:

    Jen, I hadn’t heard of that Ebert essay … if you have a URL and can send it that’d be great. I’ll work some Google-fu though. Thanks!

  • Kizz says:

    Yeah, it was basically a movie I was really glad I’d seen. Amy Ryan, for me, knocked it out of the park. It never somehow went into Lucille Ball discomfort territory for me, despite the way the plot leaned and I just loved every single person in it, even when they were doing it all wrong. Maybe especially then.

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