Win Win is a new film written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who gave us the excellent 2008 film The Visitor. McCarthy’s latest isn’t as good as his previous effort. However, like The Visitor it presents characters which are flawed, but basically good and likeable, facing unexpected dilemmas in their lives.
Win Win is the story of Mike Flaherty (played by the great Paul Giamatti), a New Jersey lawyer who also coaches the high school wrestling team. Mike’s practice is lacking clients and he is having trouble paying the bills. One of Mike’s few clients is Leo Poplar, a senior living on his own. The state does not think Leo should be living alone. Leo’s only relative is a daughter who no one is able to locate. Mike petitions the court to become Leo’s guardian, stating that he will keep Leo in his home, and look out for him. Mike knows that, as guardian, he will receive a monthly stipend from the state to cover expenses. When the court grants Mike’s request, Mike puts Leo in an assisted living complex, and keeps the stipend.
Meanwhile, Leo’s teenage grandson, Kyle, appears at the front door of Leo’s house. It turns out that Kyle’s mother is in rehab in Ohio. Kyle has nowhere to go, so comes to stay with the grandfather he has never met. Mike brings Kyle home with him for the night. Mike’s wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is understandably upset, but agrees to let Kyle stay temporarily. Kyle turns out to be a good kid who is well liked by Mike and Jackie. It also happens that Kyle wrestled for his high school in Ohio , taking them to the state finals. Kyle asks Mike if he can wrestle for his team. His skill and confidence turns Mike’s luckless wrestlers into a winning team.
Things go well until Kyle’s mother Cindy shows up in town fresh out of rehab. She wants to take Kyle home, but Kyle wants no part of her. Cindy hires an attorney who exposes Mike’s financial arrangement regarding Leo. Not even Jackie knew about Mike’s dishonest deal.
Without revealing any more about the plot, the title of the film at the sports context could lead the viewer to think that Win Win is another “feel-good” movie in which Kyle wins the state wrestling championship, and everything works out for everyone, leaving everyone happy and smiling. This would be too easy for writer-director McCarthy. The characters must deal with the consequences of their actions. Mike has to deal with his unscrupulous financial deal and Cindy for abandoning her father and son. McCarthy resolves the plot in a way that seems right. It’s hopeful and realistic, without being sugarcoated.
Win Win is a bit slow at times, and spends too much time with a subplot involving Mike’s friend Tony, whose wife has just left him. Giamatti and Ryan are excellent as always. In his film debut, Alex Shaffer, who in reality is a champion high school wrestler, gives a fine performance as Kyle.
It’s good to know that, in an era of big budget movies based on comic books, small films with realistic characters and situations like Win Win have not completely vanished from theaters. They may be endangered species, but they haven’t died out completely.
Tom Condon, OP