Film review: Win Win

A high-calibre cast overcome a contrived storyline about a fresh start in middle age, says Duncan Wu

May 19, 2011

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Win Win

Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Starring Paul Giamatti, Burt Young and Alex Shaffer

Released in the UK on 20 May

By not conforming to the plastic standards of Hollywood, Paul Giamatti's pudgy, bug-eyed face makes us believe he is one of us and thereby wins us over: good camouflage for a highly intelligent actor whose characters are often desperate, venal, or both.

Take, for instance, Mike Flaherty, the small-time New Jersey lawyer he plays in Thomas McCarthy's new film, Win Win. Saddled with a failing practice, Flaherty decides to make some extra money by becoming guardian to a senile client (Leo Poplar, played by Burt Young) who he promptly moves to a nursing home. Meanwhile, Leo's grandson, a teenager called Kyle (Alex Shaffer), runs away from home in Ohio where his mother is in rehab.

When Kyle turns up on his grandfather's doorstep, Mike and his family take him in, at which point Kyle reveals himself to be a champion wrestler. By a strange coincidence, Mike moonlights as a wrestling coach for a local team. Kyle's talents make it possible for Mike's team to work its way up the league, but things begin to fall apart when Kyle's mother is released from rehab and comes to reclaim him.

If the plot sounds intricate, contrived and far-fetched, the calibre of the cast helps one overlook its flaws. Giamatti is excellent at projecting shiftiness and suppressed panic. He also does concealment well.

This is Shaffer's first film and he is at his best when articulating the teenager's distrust and inner vulnerability. Light relief is provided by Flaherty's fellow wrestling coaches, played by Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale. Cannavale, familiar from McCarthy's first film, The Station Agent (2003), gives his pupils shrewd advice from the ringside: "Nail that little punk, will you?" he screams. Tambor's incessant look of surprised dismay makes him look like a hamster on amphetamines.

Both The Station Agent and McCarthy's other film, The Visitor (2007), are concerned with characters who change their lives in response to the deaths of those close to them. Win Win varies the premise; although in search of change, its protagonist is led to it through his relationship with a surrogate son.

McCarthy's independence from the big studios when making his first two films helped him to forge a style in which he found a poignant humour in his characters' life-changing experiences; Win Win is produced by Fox Searchlight, which may explain why the comic element is more broadly played.

The result is an unusual drama concerned with dishonesty, middle-aged angst and failure, boasting a solid performance from its lead. In some respects it is a tad too eager to please: while avoiding outright sentimentality, it has a soggy centre. The narrative resolves by showing its characters at their most virtuous - a resolution that, for all its neatness, barely keeps faith with the complexities of human nature. It would have been truer in a world in which teenagers behaved with philosophical acceptance and adults faced up to their shortcomings.

That may be a lesser solecism than the film's reluctance to follow through its analysis of social class. Having been aired, the clash of blue- and white-collar values, as represented by Kyle's drug-addicted mother versus the family with whom her son finds shelter, is swept briskly under the carpet. Class remains a touchy subject in the US. McCarthy may have thought it best to let his home audience leave the cinema happy to be living in the greatest country in the Universe; others may prefer not to view the world through rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

But then this film doesn't set out to explore inequality; it's about the importance of making a fresh start in middle age. In that respect, it's detailed, observant and reasonably truthful, thanks in large part to Giamatti. I do not tire of watching guilt pass across his face while his character knowingly bends the rules or of seeing him fake a seizure while jogging. For those pleasures, if for nothing else, this film is worth seeing.

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