Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: "Win Win"

A few weeks ago I recommended Win Win without having seen it, but that has changed. It is a charming and quirky film written and directed by Thomas McCarthy who gave us The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008). I may not be the most vocal supporter of Paul Giamatti, as I find he plays the same type of character, but he does a great job gaining your sympathy despite some of his character's poorer choices. Win Win features a great ensemble cast with Alex Shaffer in his first performance, Burt Young, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey and Bobby Cannavale, but it is Amy Ryan's performance that grounds the film. As with McCarthy's previous films, Win Win premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It definitely has the feel of an independent film which means that far fewer people will have access to it in theatres. It is being distributed in North America by Fox Searchlight Pictures which has done a fantastic job in recent years with smaller budget films, such as Little Miss Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire and Black Swan, which all eventually won Academy Awards, though Win Win is not quite that calibre of film despite great acting and a screenplay that thankfully does not fail its characters at the end. It is a film about a small town attorney who coaches a high school wrestling team in his spare time and due to a less-than-ethical decision he finds himself parenting a teenager who happens to be a wrestling phenom. Win Win is an endearing film and wonderfully acted film, and while it may follow a prescribed format, it succeeds because its characters are multidimensional and rooted in reality.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) lives in New Providence, New Jersey town where he works as an attorney. His practice is not thriving and his clients mostly consist of the elderly. He loves his wife Jackie (Ryan) and their two young daughters, but he knows he needs more income. Mike coaches the New Providence High School wrestling team with Stephen Vigman (Tambor), and the squad has amassed a considerable losing streak despite Mike's best efforts. Mike learns that he could earn $1500 a month acting as guardian for one of his aging clients, Leo Popular (Young), who is suffering from the onset of dementia. Leo wants to live in his home and the State wants to take over guardianship of Leo because no family members have been found. Mike, thinking only of his finances, agrees in court to become legal guardian because he can ensure Leo will remain in his home. But instead Mike puts Leo in a nursing home because he believes Leo will be too much of a burden. A screw is thrown into Mike's life when Kyle (Shaffer), Leo's grandson, appears on Leo's doorstep from Ohio looking to stay with his grandfather. Leo has not spoken to his daughter in a very long time and did not know he had a grandson. Jackie agrees to let Kyle stay with the Flahertys while they try to contact Kyle's mother, who is in the early stages of a rehab program. Kyle begins to forge a strong bond with Mike, Jackie and their daughters while also revealing he had been a champion wrestler at home. His presence invigorates the team and Kyle has a chance to earn a wrestling scholarship. All these positive changes are impacted when Cindy (Lynskey), Kyle's mother, shows up wanting to take Leo and Kyle back to Ohio. Mike's questionable legal decision then threatens his legal practice, his relationship with Kyle and ultimately Kyle's future.

Paul Giamatti's Mike Flaherty is decidedly more likable than the characters he has played in Sideways (2005) and Barney's Version (2010), though all three make very foolish decisions whose impact is far-reaching. And while Paul Giamatti is the name that sells the film and the main character, he is hardly the star of the film. Alex Shaffer is terrific as Kyle, and while he may not always say very much and sometimes seems emotionally detached, his character development is apparent. Shaffer himself won the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship in 2010 and the athletic demands of the film were suited to his skill. Like Gabourey Sidibe in Precious, I wonder if the film role was too perfectly suited for him and if he will be able to make a career out of acting - his IMDB profile does not indicate any future projects. I will say that Sidibe was quite amazing on The Big C with Laura Linney. I still find myself drawn to Amy Ryan who I first discovered on The Wire. She has translated that success into an Academy Award nomination for Gone Baby Gone (2007) and a great recurring guest role on The Office. Her Jackie Flaherty is a great mixture of harsh and loving and it is her role in Kyle's life that has the most impact. At its core Win Win is about family and it demonstrates that a happy family life positively affects one's personal life. It is not a groundbreaking film but it does help us open our eyes to our choices and how easily we can be a positive influence in someone's life with even the slightest effort.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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