Thursday, June 16, 2011

SFF Review: Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, 2011)

I really need to see more of Thomas McCarthy's films. If his other films, The Station Agent and The Visitor, are as good as Win Win I have been seriously missing out. Some critics, though enjoying the film, have labelled Win Win 'uncharacteristically safe' for the McCarthy resume. Sure, it does rely on some coincidences and it does all round up in a neat little package. But as a freshly unique, poignant, funny (hilarious at times) and heartwarming tale, Win Win is a delightful, well acted comedy/drama. It's a 'winner' all the way. Okay, that was lame. But it's true.

A huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival, Win Win is the story of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) a lowly, disheartened New York solicitor struggling to keep his ailing business afloat and adequately support his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two daughters. He moonlights as one of the wrestling coaches (along with Jeffrey Tambor's Vigman) for New Providence High School, where he has watched his team slip into an epic losing streak.

Mike finds a quick fix to his money problems through Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an elderly client the State wishes to transfer to a retirement home unless he can locate his legal guardian, an estranged daughter he has not seen for years. Sensing a shifty way to take advantage of Leo's substantial estate, Mike agrees to take over Leo's guardianship but instead he moves Leo to an aged care facility and embezzles the man's monthly allowance.

When Leo's runaway grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), turns up with nowhere else to go, Mike, driven by necessity, convinces Jackie to let the boy stay with them. When Mike and his friend and former high school wrestling partner Tony Delfino (Bobby Cannavale) discover the boy's wrestling talents, Mike informally adopts the boy, enrols him in the high school and watches as he transforms his team into a winner. It all looks peachy for Mike until his plans go awry when Kyle's drug-riddled mother (Melanie Lynskey) turns up to see her father and son.

McCarthy achieves success in drawing an emotional response from the audience primarily through his expertly written characters, who all feel like genuine people you would meet day to day. The witty premise is really aided by the wonderful cast. Paul Giamatti (American Splendor and Sideways) is so good at playing at complex characters trapped within their own world of righteousness and anguish. His dry sense of humour really appeals to me, but his likeable personality and his desire to, above all, help those that he loves and has grown to love, outweighs his inhumane selfishness and unethical decisions.

Amy Ryan is excellent (as usual) as his resilient wife, who at first cares little for the troubled teenager thrust into their lives, but gradually warms to him. Alex Shaffer, in his debut role, is perfectly convincing as the withdrawn and sulking teenager, and Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor are also perfectly cast as Mike's assistant coaches. Cannavale in particular steals scenes with his hilarious performance.

While the film has a few glaring holes, and is at times guilty of being a little convenient and predictable, it is never lacking charm and quite successfully balances the frailties of humanity when faced with a desperate situation, and how one unethical slip up can be reconciled with one of kindness. It is frequently amusing, but also has the dramatic impact of a strong punch to the guts. Here is a sympathetic and sentimental film that should be one of the feel-good hits of the year amongst audiences. That is, if people know enough about it to see it. I am eagerly awaiting a wide release of Win Win so I can watch it again.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)


  1. I'm happy you liked it Andy - it's a delight of a picture.

  2. I really enjoyed this movie and I think you get it just right when you say he draws genuine emotional response through his characters. On that note, you should totally see The Station Agent. If you liked this one, you will like that one just as much.

  3. It certainly is a delight.

    It often seemed like Giamatti wasn't acting, his performance was so natural. The relationships between him and his wife, his daughter, even his co-coaches, are beautifully realized.

    Loved it!

  4. Yeah, I enjoyed this one a great deal, despite its seemingly standard plot. I identify with Giamatti more than other actor, I think; he represents the average man, which is rare in American movies.

  5. Great film! If Giamatti could snag a nomination for this that would be excellent.

  6. Yeah, he is usually excellent in everything, but I think this is my favourite performance by Giamatti since Sideways.

    He won the Golden Globe for Barney's Version, which was hardly a comedy, and a film I wasn't overly rapt in. Hopefully he will be considered again.